Telephone and Data Systems (NYSE:TDS) Use Of Debt Could Be Considered Risky

By
Simply Wall St
Published
December 26, 2021
NYSE:TDS
Source: Shutterstock

Some say volatility, rather than debt, is the best way to think about risk as an investor, but Warren Buffett famously said that 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' When we think about how risky a company is, we always like to look at its use of debt, since debt overload can lead to ruin. Importantly, Telephone and Data Systems, Inc. (NYSE:TDS) does carry debt. 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 common (but still painful) scenario is that it has to raise new equity capital at a low price, thus permanently diluting shareholders. Of course, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.

Check out our latest analysis for Telephone and Data Systems

What Is Telephone and Data Systems's Debt?

The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Telephone and Data Systems had US$3.00b in debt in September 2021; about the same as the year before. However, it also had US$725.0m in cash, and so its net debt is US$2.27b.

debt-equity-history-analysis
NYSE:TDS Debt to Equity History December 26th 2021

A Look At Telephone and Data Systems' Liabilities

Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Telephone and Data Systems had liabilities of US$1.29b due within 12 months and liabilities of US$5.42b due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$725.0m and US$1.27b worth of receivables due within a year. So it has liabilities totalling US$4.71b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.

The deficiency here weighs heavily on the US$2.37b company itself, as if a child were struggling under the weight of an enormous back-pack full of books, his sports gear, and a trumpet. So we'd watch its balance sheet closely, without a doubt. After all, Telephone and Data Systems would likely require a major re-capitalisation if it had to pay its creditors today.

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.

While Telephone and Data Systems has a quite reasonable net debt to EBITDA multiple of 1.9, its interest cover seems weak, at 1.2. The main reason for this is that it has such high depreciation and amortisation. These charges may be non-cash, so they could be excluded when it comes to paying down debt. But the accounting charges are there for a reason -- some assets are seen to be losing value. In any case, it's safe to say the company has meaningful debt. We saw Telephone and Data Systems grow its EBIT by 4.9% in the last twelve months. That's far from incredible but it is a good thing, when it comes to paying off 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 Telephone and Data Systems 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.

Finally, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. Over the last three years, Telephone and Data Systems saw substantial negative free cash flow, in total. While that may be a result of expenditure for growth, it does make the debt far more risky.

Our View

To be frank both Telephone and Data Systems's conversion of EBIT to free cash flow and its track record of staying on top of its total liabilities make us rather uncomfortable with its debt levels. But at least its EBIT growth rate is not so bad. Taking into account all the aforementioned factors, it looks like Telephone and Data Systems has too much debt. That sort of riskiness is ok for some, but it certainly doesn't float our boat. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet - far from it. These risks can be hard to spot. Every company has them, and we've spotted 3 warning signs for Telephone and Data Systems you should know about.

If you're interested in investing in businesses that can grow profits without the burden of debt, then check out this free list of growing businesses that have net cash on the balance sheet.

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