The external fund manager backed by Berkshire Hathaway's Charlie Munger, Li Lu, makes no bones about it when he says '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 note that Portland General Electric Company (NYSE:POR) does have debt on its balance sheet. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
Why Does Debt Bring Risk?
Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. 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. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well - and to its own advantage. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
How Much Debt Does Portland General Electric Carry?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that as of June 2021 Portland General Electric had US$3.11b of debt, an increase on US$2.97b, over one year. And it doesn't have much cash, so its net debt is about the same.
How Strong Is Portland General Electric's Balance Sheet?
According to the last reported balance sheet, Portland General Electric had liabilities of US$856.0m due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$5.58b due beyond 12 months. Offsetting this, it had US$17.0m in cash and US$274.0m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$6.15b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
Given this deficit is actually higher than the company's market capitalization of US$4.33b, we think shareholders really should watch Portland General Electric'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). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.
While Portland General Electric's debt to EBITDA ratio (4.4) suggests that it uses some debt, its interest cover is very weak, at 1.8, suggesting high leverage. It seems that the business incurs large depreciation and amortisation charges, so maybe its debt load is heavier than it would first appear, since EBITDA is arguably a generous measure of earnings. So shareholders should probably be aware that interest expenses appear to have really impacted the business lately. Even worse, Portland General Electric saw its EBIT tank 34% over the last 12 months. If earnings keep going like that over the long term, it has a snowball's chance in hell of paying off that 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 Portland General Electric 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 we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. During the last three years, Portland General Electric 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, Portland General Electric's conversion of EBIT to free cash flow left us tentative about the stock, and its EBIT growth rate 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 Electric Utilities industry companies like Portland General Electric commonly do use debt without problems. Considering all the factors previously mentioned, we think that Portland General Electric really is carrying too much debt. To us, that makes the stock rather risky, like walking through a dog park with your eyes closed. But some investors may feel differently. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. We've identified 4 warning signs with Portland General Electric (at least 1 which shouldn't be ignored) , and understanding them should be part of your investment process.
If you're interested in investing in businesses that can grow profits without the burden of debt, then check out this free list of growing businesses that have net cash on the balance sheet.
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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