Howard Marks put it nicely when he said that, rather than worrying about share price volatility, 'The possibility of permanent loss is the risk I worry about... and every practical investor I know worries about.' It's only natural to consider a company's balance sheet when you examine how risky it is, since debt is often involved when a business collapses. As with many other companies Gray Television, Inc. (NYSE:GTN) makes use of debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
When Is Debt Dangerous?
Debt is a tool to help businesses grow, but if a business is incapable of paying off its lenders, then it exists at their mercy. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. However, a more usual (but still expensive) situation is where a company must dilute shareholders at a cheap share price simply to get debt under control. Of course, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
What Is Gray Television's Debt?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that as of September 2021 Gray Television had US$3.98b of debt, an increase on US$3.71b, over one year. However, it also had US$322.0m in cash, and so its net debt is US$3.66b.
How Strong Is Gray Television's Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Gray Television had liabilities of US$280.0m falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$5.09b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$322.0m as well as receivables valued at US$461.0m due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$4.58b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
This deficit casts a shadow over the US$1.99b company, like a colossus towering over mere mortals. So we'd watch its balance sheet closely, without a doubt. At the end of the day, Gray Television would probably need a major re-capitalization if its creditors were to demand repayment.
We measure a company's debt load relative to its earnings power by looking at its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and by calculating how easily its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) cover its interest expense (interest cover). The advantage of this approach is that we take into account both the absolute quantum of debt (with net debt to EBITDA) and the actual interest expenses associated with that debt (with its interest cover ratio).
Gray Television's debt is 4.1 times its EBITDA, and its EBIT cover its interest expense 3.6 times over. Taken together this implies that, while we wouldn't want to see debt levels rise, we think it can handle its current leverage. On a slightly more positive note, Gray Television grew its EBIT at 12% over the last year, further increasing its ability to manage debt. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Gray Television's ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. So if you want to see what the professionals think, you might find this free report on analyst profit forecasts to be interesting.
Finally, a company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. During the last three years, Gray Television produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 61% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.
Mulling over Gray Television's attempt at staying on top of its total liabilities, we're certainly not enthusiastic. But at least it's pretty decent at converting EBIT to free cash flow; that's encouraging. Looking at the bigger picture, it seems clear to us that Gray Television's use of debt is creating risks for the company. If all goes well, that should boost returns, but on the flip side, the risk of permanent capital loss is elevated by the debt. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. For example, we've discovered 2 warning signs for Gray Television (1 makes us a bit uncomfortable!) that you should be aware of before investing here.
If, after all that, you're more interested in a fast growing company with a rock-solid balance sheet, then check out our list of net cash growth stocks without delay.
This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. We provide commentary based on historical data and analyst forecasts only using an unbiased methodology and our articles are not intended to be financial advice. It does not constitute a recommendation to buy or sell any stock, and does not take account of your objectives, or your financial situation. We aim to bring you long-term focused analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material. Simply Wall St has no position in any stocks mentioned.