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 Entergy Corporation (NYSE:ETR) does use debt in its business. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
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. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. 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 Entergy's Net Debt?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that as of September 2021 Entergy had US$25.6b of debt, an increase on US$22.1b, over one year. However, because it has a cash reserve of US$1.00b, its net debt is less, at about US$24.6b.
How Healthy Is Entergy's Balance Sheet?
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Entergy had liabilities of US$6.64b due within 12 months and liabilities of US$40.7b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$1.00b as well as receivables valued at US$1.53b due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$44.8b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
This deficit casts a shadow over the US$22.4b company, like a colossus towering over mere mortals. So we definitely think shareholders need to watch this one closely. After all, Entergy would likely require a major re-capitalisation if it had to pay its creditors today.
We use two main ratios to inform us about debt levels relative to earnings. The first is net debt divided by earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA), while the second is how many times its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) covers its interest expense (or its interest cover, for short). 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 6.0, it's fair to say Entergy does have a significant amount of debt. But the good news is that it boasts fairly comforting interest cover of 5.6 times, suggesting it can responsibly service its obligations. If Entergy can keep growing EBIT at last year's rate of 13% over the last year, then it will find its debt load easier to manage. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Entergy'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. During the last three years, Entergy 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.
On the face of it, Entergy's conversion of EBIT to free cash flow left us tentative about the stock, and its level of total liabilities 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 Entergy is in the Electric Utilities industry, which is often considered to be quite defensive. We're quite clear that we consider Entergy 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. For example Entergy has 3 warning signs (and 1 which is a bit unpleasant) we think you should know about.
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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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.