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.' 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. We note that American States Water Company (NYSE:AWR) does have debt on its balance sheet. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
Why Does Debt Bring Risk?
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. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. 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.
Our analysis indicates that AWR is potentially overvalued!
What Is American States Water's Net Debt?
As you can see below, at the end of June 2022, American States Water had US$670.8m of debt, up from US$600.7m a year ago. Click the image for more detail. And it doesn't have much cash, so its net debt is about the same.
How Strong Is American States Water's Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that American States Water had liabilities of US$348.7m falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$906.7m due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$10.8m and US$88.1m worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$1.16b.
American States Water has a market capitalization of US$2.99b, so it could very likely raise cash to ameliorate its balance sheet, if the need arose. 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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
American States Water's debt is 3.7 times its EBITDA, and its EBIT cover its interest expense 6.6 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. Importantly American States Water's EBIT was essentially flat over the last twelve months. Ideally it can diminish its debt load by kick-starting earnings growth. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine American States Water'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 always check how much of that EBIT is translated into 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.
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. We should also note that Water Utilities industry companies like American States Water commonly do use debt without problems. 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. Be aware that American States Water is showing 3 warning signs in our investment analysis , and 1 of those is a bit unpleasant...
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.
What are the risks and opportunities for American States Water?
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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.
American States Water
American States Water Company, through its subsidiaries, provides water and electric services to residential, commercial, industrial, and other customers in the United States.
Average dividend payer with questionable track record.