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.' It's only natural to consider a company's balance sheet when you examine how risky it is, since debt is often involved when a business collapses. We can see that WEC Energy Group, Inc. (NYSE:WEC) does use debt in its business. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
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. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. However, a more frequent (but still costly) occurrence is where a company must issue shares at bargain-basement prices, permanently diluting shareholders, just to shore up its balance sheet. Of course, the upside of debt is that it often represents cheap capital, especially when it replaces dilution in a company with the ability to reinvest at high rates of return. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
What Is WEC Energy Group's Net Debt?
As you can see below, at the end of March 2021, WEC Energy Group had US$14.6b of debt, up from US$12.7b a year ago. Click the image for more detail. Net debt is about the same, since the it doesn't have much cash.
How Strong Is WEC Energy Group's Balance Sheet?
The latest balance sheet data shows that WEC Energy Group had liabilities of US$3.71b due within a year, and liabilities of US$22.9b falling due after that. Offsetting this, it had US$26.1m in cash and US$1.37b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$25.2b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
This is a mountain of leverage even relative to its gargantuan market capitalization of US$29.0b. Should its lenders demand that it shore up the balance sheet, shareholders would likely face severe 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). 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).
WEC Energy Group has a rather high debt to EBITDA ratio of 5.3 which suggests a meaningful debt load. But the good news is that it boasts fairly comforting interest cover of 3.6 times, suggesting it can responsibly service its obligations. Fortunately, WEC Energy Group grew its EBIT by 6.6% 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 it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine WEC Energy Group's ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. 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. Over the last three years, WEC Energy Group recorded negative free cash flow, in total. 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. We should also note that Integrated Utilities industry companies like WEC Energy Group commonly do use debt without problems. Looking at the bigger picture, it seems clear to us that WEC Energy Group's use of debt is creating risks for the company. If all goes well, that should boost returns, but on the flip side, the risk of permanent capital loss is elevated by the debt. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet - far from it. Be aware that WEC Energy Group is showing 2 warning signs in our investment analysis , and 1 of those is potentially serious...
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.
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