Is Otter Tail (NASDAQ:OTTR) A Risky Investment?

By
Simply Wall St
Published
April 14, 2022
NasdaqGS:OTTR
Source: Shutterstock

The external fund manager backed by Berkshire Hathaway's Charlie Munger, Li Lu, makes no bones about it when he says 'The biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a permanent loss of capital.' So it might be obvious that you need to consider debt, when you think about how risky any given stock is, because too much debt can sink a company. Importantly, Otter Tail Corporation (NASDAQ:OTTR) does carry debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?

What Risk Does Debt Bring?

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. By replacing dilution, though, debt can be an extremely good tool for businesses that need capital to invest in growth at high rates of return. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.

Check out our latest analysis for Otter Tail

How Much Debt Does Otter Tail Carry?

As you can see below, Otter Tail had US$855.2m of debt, at December 2021, which is about the same as the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. Net debt is about the same, since the it doesn't have much cash.

debt-equity-history-analysis
NasdaqGS:OTTR Debt to Equity History April 14th 2022

A Look At Otter Tail's Liabilities

Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Otter Tail had liabilities of US$387.7m due within 12 months and liabilities of US$1.38b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$1.54m as well as receivables valued at US$175.0m due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$1.59b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.

This is a mountain of leverage relative to its market capitalization of US$2.60b. This suggests shareholders would be heavily diluted if the company needed to shore up its balance sheet in a hurry.

We use two main ratios to inform us about debt levels relative to earnings. The first is net debt divided by earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA), while the second is how many times its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) covers its interest expense (or its interest cover, for short). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.

Otter Tail has a debt to EBITDA ratio of 2.5 and its EBIT covered its interest expense 6.6 times. This suggests that while the debt levels are significant, we'd stop short of calling them problematic. It is well worth noting that Otter Tail's EBIT shot up like bamboo after rain, gaining 71% in the last twelve months. That'll make it easier to manage its debt. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Otter Tail'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 we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. Over the last three years, Otter Tail saw substantial negative free cash flow, in total. While investors are no doubt expecting a reversal of that situation in due course, it clearly does mean its use of debt is more risky.

Our View

Neither Otter Tail's ability to convert EBIT to free cash flow nor its level of total liabilities gave us confidence in its ability to take on more debt. But the good news is it seems to be able to grow its EBIT with ease. It's also worth noting that Otter Tail is in the Electric Utilities industry, which is often considered to be quite defensive. Looking at all the angles mentioned above, it does seem to us that Otter Tail is a somewhat risky investment as a result of its debt. Not all risk is bad, as it can boost share price returns if it pays off, but this debt risk is worth keeping in mind. 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. We've identified 3 warning signs with Otter Tail (at least 1 which shouldn't be ignored) , and understanding them should be part of your investment process.

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.

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