AT&T (NYSE:T) Has A Somewhat Strained Balance Sheet

March 23, 2021
  •  Updated
August 13, 2022
NYSE:T
Source: Shutterstock

Legendary fund manager Li Lu (who Charlie Munger backed) once said, 'The biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a permanent loss of capital.' 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. We can see that AT&T Inc. (NYSE:T) does use debt in its business. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.

When Is Debt Dangerous?

Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. However, a more frequent (but still costly) occurrence is where a company must issue shares at bargain-basement prices, permanently diluting shareholders, just to shore up its balance sheet. Of course, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.

View our latest analysis for AT&T

How Much Debt Does AT&T Carry?

As you can see below, AT&T had US$155.2b of debt, at December 2020, which is about the same as the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. However, it does have US$9.77b in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about US$145.4b.

debt-equity-history-analysis
NYSE:T Debt to Equity History March 24th 2021

A Look At AT&T's Liabilities

We can see from the most recent balance sheet that AT&T had liabilities of US$63.4b falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$283.1b due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$9.77b and US$23.7b worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$313.0b.

Given this deficit is actually higher than the company's massive market capitalization of US$214.1b, we think shareholders really should watch AT&T's debt levels, like a parent watching their child ride a bike for the first time. In the scenario where the company had to clean up its balance sheet quickly, it seems likely shareholders would suffer extensive dilution.

In order to size up a company's debt relative to its earnings, we calculate its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) divided by its interest expense (its interest cover). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.

AT&T's debt is 2.9 times its EBITDA, and its EBIT cover its interest expense 3.2 times over. This suggests that while the debt levels are significant, we'd stop short of calling them problematic. Even more troubling is the fact that AT&T actually let its EBIT decrease by 7.6% over the last year. If that earnings trend continues the company will face an uphill battle to pay off its debt. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if AT&T can strengthen its balance sheet over time. So if you want to see what the professionals think, you might find this free report on analyst profit forecasts to be interesting.

But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. Over the last three years, AT&T recorded free cash flow worth a fulsome 93% of its EBIT, which is stronger than we'd usually expect. That puts it in a very strong position to pay down debt.

Our View

We'd go so far as to say AT&T's level of total liabilities was disappointing. But on the bright side, its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. Overall, we think it's fair to say that AT&T has enough debt that there are some real risks around the balance sheet. If everything goes well that may pay off but the downside of this debt is a greater risk of permanent losses. 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 instance, we've identified 2 warning signs for AT&T (1 makes us a bit uncomfortable) you should be aware of.

Of course, if you're the type of investor who prefers buying stocks without the burden of debt, then don't hesitate to discover our exclusive list of net cash growth stocks, today.

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