David Iben put it well when he said, 'Volatility is not a risk we care about. What we care about is avoiding the permanent loss of capital.' So it seems the smart money knows that debt - which is usually involved in bankruptcies - is a very important factor, when you assess how risky a company is. We note that WEC Energy Group, Inc. (NYSE:WEC) does have debt on its balance sheet. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
When Is Debt A Problem?
Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. 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. Of course, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
How Much Debt Does WEC Energy Group Carry?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at June 2021 WEC Energy Group had debt of US$14.6b, up from US$12.8b in one year. Net debt is about the same, since the it doesn't have much cash.
How Strong Is WEC Energy Group's Balance Sheet?
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that WEC Energy Group had liabilities of US$3.37b due within 12 months and liabilities of US$23.4b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had US$35.0m in cash and US$1.18b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$25.5b.
This deficit is considerable relative to its very significant market capitalization of US$28.0b, so it does suggest shareholders should keep an eye on WEC Energy Group's use of debt. Should its lenders demand that it shore up the balance sheet, shareholders would likely face severe dilution.
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.
WEC Energy Group has a rather high debt to EBITDA ratio of 5.1 which suggests a meaningful debt load. However, its interest coverage of 3.8 is reasonably strong, which is a good sign. Fortunately, WEC Energy Group grew its EBIT by 8.0% in the last year, slowly shrinking its debt relative to earnings. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if WEC Energy Group 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, a company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. Considering the last three years, WEC Energy Group actually recorded a cash outflow, overall. Debt is usually more expensive, and almost always more risky in the hands of a company with negative free cash flow. Shareholders ought to hope for an improvement.
On the face of it, WEC Energy Group's conversion of EBIT to free cash flow left us tentative about the stock, and its net debt to EBITDA was no more enticing than the one empty restaurant on the busiest night of the year. But at least it's pretty decent at growing its EBIT; that's encouraging. It's also worth noting that WEC Energy Group is in the Integrated Utilities industry, which is often considered to be quite defensive. Overall, we think it's fair to say that WEC Energy Group has enough debt that there are some real risks around the balance sheet. If all goes well, that should boost returns, but on the flip side, the risk of permanent capital loss is elevated by the debt. 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. These risks can be hard to spot. Every company has them, and we've spotted 1 warning sign for WEC Energy Group 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.
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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