Is American States Water (NYSE:AWR) Using Too Much Debt?

Published
July 19, 2022
NYSE:AWR
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Warren Buffett famously said, 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' 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. Importantly, American States Water Company (NYSE:AWR) does carry debt. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?

When Is Debt Dangerous?

Generally speaking, debt only becomes a real problem when a company can't easily pay it off, either by raising capital or with its own cash flow. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. 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. 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 think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.

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What Is American States Water's Debt?

The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at March 2022 American States Water had debt of US$634.0m, up from US$569.7m in one year. And it doesn't have much cash, so its net debt is about the same.

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NYSE:AWR Debt to Equity History July 19th 2022

How Strong Is American States Water's Balance Sheet?

According to the last reported balance sheet, American States Water had liabilities of US$160.2m due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$1.07b due beyond 12 months. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$10.1m as well as receivables valued at US$81.5m due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$1.13b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

While this might seem like a lot, it is not so bad since American States Water has a market capitalization of US$2.98b, and so it could probably strengthen its balance sheet by raising capital if it needed to. However, it is still worthwhile taking a close look at its ability to pay off debt.

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.

American States Water's debt is 3.5 times its EBITDA, and its EBIT cover its interest expense 6.7 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. Notably American States Water's EBIT was pretty flat over the last year. We would prefer to see some earnings growth, because that always helps diminish debt. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if American States Water can strengthen its balance sheet over time. So if you're focused on the future you can check out this free report showing analyst profit forecasts.

Finally, a company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. Considering the last three years, American States Water actually recorded a cash outflow, overall. Debt is usually more expensive, and almost always more risky in the hands of a company with negative free cash flow. Shareholders ought to hope for an improvement.

Our View

American States Water's conversion of EBIT to free cash flow was a real negative on this analysis, although the other factors we considered cast it in a significantly better light. But on the bright side, its ability to to cover its interest expense with its EBIT isn't too shabby at all. It's also worth noting that American States Water is in the Water Utilities industry, which is often considered to be quite defensive. When we consider all the factors discussed, it seems to us that American States Water is taking some risks with its use of debt. So while that leverage does boost returns on equity, we wouldn't really want to see it increase from here. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet - far from it. For example - American States Water has 3 warning signs we think you should be aware of.

At the end of the day, it's often better to focus on companies that are free from net debt. You can access our special list of such companies (all with a track record of profit growth). It's free.

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