Essential Utilities (NYSE:WTRG) Takes On Some Risk With Its Use Of Debt

By
Simply Wall St
Published
April 13, 2022
NYSE:WTRG
Source: Shutterstock

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.' 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. As with many other companies Essential Utilities, Inc. (NYSE:WTRG) makes use of debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?

Why Does Debt Bring Risk?

Generally speaking, debt only becomes a real problem when a company can't easily pay it off, either by raising capital or with its own cash flow. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. 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 thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.

View our latest analysis for Essential Utilities

What Is Essential Utilities's Debt?

You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that as of December 2021 Essential Utilities had US$6.06b of debt, an increase on US$5.71b, over one year. And it doesn't have much cash, so its net debt is about the same.

debt-equity-history-analysis
NYSE:WTRG Debt to Equity History April 13th 2022

How Strong Is Essential Utilities' Balance Sheet?

We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Essential Utilities had liabilities of US$675.1m falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$8.80b due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$10.6m and US$260.9m worth of receivables due within a year. So it has liabilities totalling US$9.20b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.

This is a mountain of leverage even relative to its gargantuan market capitalization of US$12.9b. 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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.

With a net debt to EBITDA ratio of 6.6, it's fair to say Essential Utilities does have a significant amount of debt. But the good news is that it boasts fairly comforting interest cover of 3.0 times, suggesting it can responsibly service its obligations. Looking on the bright side, Essential Utilities boosted its EBIT by a silky 35% in the last year. Like a mother's loving embrace of a newborn that sort of growth builds resilience, putting the company in a stronger position to manage its debt. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Essential Utilities 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.

But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. Over the last three years, Essential Utilities saw substantial negative free cash flow, in total. While that may be a result of expenditure for growth, it does make the debt far more risky.

Our View

On the face of it, Essential Utilities's net debt to EBITDA left us tentative about the stock, and its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow 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 Essential Utilities is in the Water Utilities industry, which is often considered to be quite defensive. Once we consider all the factors above, together, it seems to us that Essential Utilities's debt is making it a bit risky. Some people like that sort of risk, but we're mindful of the potential pitfalls, so we'd probably prefer it carry less debt. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. For example Essential Utilities has 3 warning signs (and 1 which is potentially serious) we think you should know about.

If, after all that, you're more interested in a fast growing company with a rock-solid balance sheet, then check out our list of net cash growth stocks without delay.

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