We're Not Counting On NRG Energy (NYSE:NRG) To Sustain Its Statutory Profitability

By
Simply Wall St
Published
January 04, 2021

Statistically speaking, it is less risky to invest in profitable companies than in unprofitable ones. That said, the current statutory profit is not always a good guide to a company's underlying profitability. This article will consider whether NRG Energy's (NYSE:NRG) statutory profits are a good guide to its underlying earnings.

While NRG Energy was able to generate revenue of US$9.26b in the last twelve months, we think its profit result of US$4.14b was more important. Even though revenue has remained steady over the last three years, you can see in the chart below that the company has moved from loss-making to profitable.

See our latest analysis for NRG Energy

NYSE:NRG Earnings and Revenue History January 4th 2021

Importantly, statutory profits are not always the best tool for understanding a company's true earnings power, so it's well worth examining profits in a little more detail. So today we'll look at what NRG Energy's cashflow tells us about its earnings, as well as examining how the receipt of a tax benefit has impacted its statutory earnings. That might leave you wondering what analysts are forecasting in terms of future profitability. Luckily, you can click here to see an interactive graph depicting future profitability, based on their estimates.

A Closer Look At NRG Energy's Earnings

In high finance, the key ratio used to measure how well a company converts reported profits into free cash flow (FCF) is the accrual ratio (from cashflow). To get the accrual ratio we first subtract FCF from profit for a period, and then divide that number by the average operating assets for the period. You could think of the accrual ratio from cashflow as the 'non-FCF profit ratio'.

Therefore, it's actually considered a good thing when a company has a negative accrual ratio, but a bad thing if its accrual ratio is positive. While having an accrual ratio above zero is of little concern, we do think it's worth noting when a company has a relatively high accrual ratio. That's because some academic studies have suggested that high accruals ratios tend to lead to lower profit or less profit growth.

Over the twelve months to September 2020, NRG Energy recorded an accrual ratio of 0.48. Ergo, its free cash flow is significantly weaker than its profit. As a general rule, that bodes poorly for future profitability. Indeed, in the last twelve months it reported free cash flow of US$1.4b, which is significantly less than its profit of US$4.14b. We note, however, that NRG Energy grew its free cash flow over the last year. However, as we will discuss below, we can see that the company's accrual ratio has been impacted by its tax situation. This would certainly have contributed to the weak cash conversion. One positive for NRG Energy shareholders is that it's accrual ratio was significantly better last year, providing reason to believe that it may return to stronger cash conversion in the future. As a result, some shareholders may be looking for stronger cash conversion in the current year.

An Unusual Tax Situation

Moving on from the accrual ratio, we note that NRG Energy profited from a tax benefit which contributed US$3.1b to profit. This is meaningful because companies usually pay tax rather than receive tax benefits. The receipt of a tax benefit is obviously a good thing, on its own. However, our data indicates that tax benefits can temporarily boost statutory profit in the year it is booked, but subsequently profit may fall back. In the likely event the tax benefit is not repeated, we'd expect to see its statutory profit levels drop, at least in the absence of strong growth.

Our Take On NRG Energy's Profit Performance

NRG Energy's accrual ratio indicates weak cashflow relative to earnings, which perhaps arises in part from the tax benefit it received this year. On top of that, the unsustainable nature of tax benefits mean that there's a chance profit may be lower next year, certainly in the absence of strong growth. On reflection, the above-mentioned factors give us the strong impression that NRG Energy'sunderlying earnings power is not as good as it might seem, based on the statutory profit numbers. So if you'd like to dive deeper into this stock, it's crucial to consider any risks it's facing. When we did our research, we found 5 warning signs for NRG Energy (2 are a bit unpleasant!) that we believe deserve your full attention.

Our examination of NRG Energy has focussed on certain factors that can make its earnings look better than they are. And, on that basis, we are somewhat skeptical. But there is always more to discover if you are capable of focussing your mind on minutiae. For example, many people consider a high return on equity as an indication of favorable business economics, while others like to 'follow the money' and search out stocks that insiders are buying. So you may wish to see this free collection of companies boasting high return on equity, or this list of stocks that insiders are buying.

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This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. 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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