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 can see that American States Water Company (NYSE:AWR) does use debt in its business. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
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. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. While that is not too common, we often do see indebted companies permanently diluting shareholders because lenders force them to raise capital at a distressed price. 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. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
What Is American States Water's Net Debt?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that as of December 2021 American States Water had US$618.1m of debt, an increase on US$574.9m, over one year. Net debt is about the same, since the it doesn't have much cash.
How Healthy Is American States Water's Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that American States Water had liabilities of US$155.6m falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$1.06b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had US$4.96m in cash and US$102.3m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$1.11b 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$3.23b, 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.
We measure a company's debt load relative to its earnings power by looking at its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and by calculating how easily its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) cover its interest expense (interest cover). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
American States Water's debt is 3.3 times its EBITDA, and its EBIT cover its interest expense 6.8 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. We saw American States Water grow its EBIT by 8.4% 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 American States Water 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, a business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. 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.
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. For example, its EBIT growth rate is relatively strong. 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. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. Be aware that American States Water is showing 3 warning signs in our investment analysis , and 1 of those shouldn't be ignored...
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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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.