Stock Analysis

Is DTE Energy (NYSE:DTE) A Risky Investment?

NYSE:DTE
Source: Shutterstock

Legendary fund manager Li Lu (who Charlie Munger backed) once said, 'The biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a 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. We can see that DTE Energy Company (NYSE:DTE) does use debt in its business. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.

When Is Debt Dangerous?

Debt and other liabilities become risky for a business when it cannot easily fulfill those obligations, either with free cash flow or by raising capital at an attractive price. 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 examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.

View our latest analysis for DTE Energy

What Is DTE Energy's Net Debt?

As you can see below, DTE Energy had US$18.5b of debt at March 2022, down from US$20.5b a year prior. Net debt is about the same, since the it doesn't have much cash.

debt-equity-history-analysis
NYSE:DTE Debt to Equity History May 25th 2022

How Healthy Is DTE Energy's Balance Sheet?

According to the last reported balance sheet, DTE Energy had liabilities of US$5.68b due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$25.8b due beyond 12 months. Offsetting this, it had US$150.0m in cash and US$1.81b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$29.5b.

Given this deficit is actually higher than the company's massive market capitalization of US$26.0b, we think shareholders really should watch DTE 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.

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). 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).

DTE Energy has a rather high debt to EBITDA ratio of 6.8 which suggests a meaningful debt load. 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 DTE Energy grew its EBIT at 14% over the last 12 months, boosting its ability to handle its debt. 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 DTE Energy 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, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. During the last three years, DTE Energy burned a lot of cash. 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, DTE 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. But on the bright side, its EBIT growth rate is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. We should also note that Integrated Utilities industry companies like DTE Energy commonly do use debt without problems. Overall, it seems to us that DTE 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. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. To that end, you should learn about the 5 warning signs we've spotted with DTE Energy (including 1 which makes us a bit uncomfortable) .

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.

Valuation is complex, but we're helping make it simple.

Find out whether DTE Energy is potentially over or undervalued by checking out our comprehensive analysis, which includes fair value estimates, risks and warnings, dividends, insider transactions and financial health.

View the Free Analysis

Have feedback on this article? Concerned about the content? Get in touch with us directly. Alternatively, email editorial-team (at) simplywallst.com.

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.