David Iben put it well when he said, 'Volatility is not a risk we care about. What we care about is avoiding the 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, CMS Energy Corporation (NYSE:CMS) does carry debt. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
What Risk Does Debt Bring?
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. 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. Of course, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
How Much Debt Does CMS Energy Carry?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that CMS Energy had debt of US$12.4b at the end of March 2022, a reduction from US$15.1b over a year. However, because it has a cash reserve of US$446.0m, its net debt is less, at about US$12.0b.
How Strong Is CMS Energy's Balance Sheet?
The latest balance sheet data shows that CMS Energy had liabilities of US$1.81b due within a year, and liabilities of US$19.5b falling due after that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$446.0m and US$1.05b worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities total US$19.8b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
When you consider that this deficiency exceeds the company's huge US$19.1b market capitalization, you might well be inclined to review the balance sheet intently. Hypothetically, extremely heavy dilution would be required if the company were forced to pay down its liabilities by raising capital at the current share price.
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.
With a net debt to EBITDA ratio of 5.2, it's fair to say CMS Energy does have a significant amount of debt. However, its interest coverage of 2.7 is reasonably strong, which is a good sign. More concerning, CMS Energy saw its EBIT drop by 7.5% in the last twelve months. If it keeps going like that paying off its debt will be like running on a treadmill -- a lot of effort for not much advancement. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if CMS Energy 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 it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. During the last three years, CMS Energy burned a lot of cash. While that may be a result of expenditure for growth, it does make the debt far more risky.
On the face of it, CMS Energy's net debt to EBITDA left us tentative about the stock, and its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow was no more enticing than the one empty restaurant on the busiest night of the year. And furthermore, its level of total liabilities also fails to instill confidence. We should also note that Integrated Utilities industry companies like CMS Energy commonly do use debt without problems. We're quite clear that we consider CMS Energy to be really rather risky, as a result of its balance sheet health. For this reason we're pretty cautious about the stock, and we think shareholders should keep a close eye on its liquidity. 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. To that end, you should learn about the 3 warning signs we've spotted with CMS Energy (including 1 which is a bit unpleasant) .
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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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.
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