These 4 Measures Indicate That CMS Energy (NYSE:CMS) Is Using Debt Extensively

By
Simply Wall St
Published
October 31, 2021
NYSE:CMS
Source: Shutterstock

Some say volatility, rather than debt, is the best way to think about risk as an investor, but Warren Buffett famously said that '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. We note that CMS Energy Corporation (NYSE:CMS) does have debt on its balance sheet. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?

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. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.

See our latest analysis for CMS Energy

What Is CMS Energy's Debt?

You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that CMS Energy had US$12.6b of debt in September 2021, down from US$15.1b, one year before. And it doesn't have much cash, so its net debt is about the same.

debt-equity-history-analysis
NYSE:CMS Debt to Equity History November 1st 2021

How Strong Is CMS Energy's Balance Sheet?

The latest balance sheet data shows that CMS Energy had liabilities of US$3.25b due within a year, and liabilities of US$20.6b falling due after that. Offsetting this, it had US$102.0m in cash and US$735.0m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$23.0b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

Given this deficit is actually higher than the company's massive market capitalization of US$17.5b, we think shareholders really should watch CMS Energy's debt levels, like a parent watching their child ride a bike for the first time. In the scenario where the company had to clean up its balance sheet quickly, it seems likely shareholders would suffer extensive dilution.

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). The advantage of this approach is that we take into account both the absolute quantum of debt (with net debt to EBITDA) and the actual interest expenses associated with that debt (with its interest cover ratio).

With a net debt to EBITDA ratio of 5.0, it's fair to say CMS Energy does have a significant amount of debt. But the good news is that it boasts fairly comforting interest cover of 2.7 times, suggesting it can responsibly service its obligations. However, one redeeming factor is that CMS Energy grew its EBIT at 12% over the last 12 months, boosting its ability to handle 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 CMS Energy's ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. So if you're focused on the future you can check out this free report showing analyst profit forecasts.

But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. Over the last three years, CMS Energy 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

On the face of it, CMS Energy's level of total liabilities 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. But on the bright side, its EBIT growth rate is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. It's also worth noting that CMS Energy is in the Integrated Utilities industry, which is often considered to be quite defensive. Overall, it seems to us that CMS Energy's balance sheet is really quite a risk to the business. For this reason we're pretty cautious about the stock, and we think shareholders should keep a close eye on its liquidity. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet - far from it. We've identified 2 warning signs with CMS Energy (at least 1 which is significant) , and understanding them should be part of your investment process.

When all is said and done, sometimes its easier to focus on companies that don't even need debt. Readers can access a list of growth stocks with zero net debt 100% free, right now.

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