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. As with many other companies SkyWest, Inc. (NASDAQ:SKYW) makes use of debt. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
When Is Debt A Problem?
Debt and other liabilities become risky for a business when it cannot easily fulfill those obligations, either with free cash flow or by raising capital at an attractive price. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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. By replacing dilution, though, debt can be an extremely good tool for businesses that need capital to invest in growth at high rates of return. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
What Is SkyWest's Net Debt?
The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that SkyWest had US$3.06b in debt in June 2019; about the same as the year before. On the flip side, it has US$549.6m in cash leading to net debt of about US$2.51b.
How Strong Is SkyWest's Balance Sheet?
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that SkyWest had liabilities of US$927.3m due within 12 months and liabilities of US$3.60b due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$549.6m and US$103.3m worth of receivables due within a year. So it has liabilities totalling US$3.87b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
Given this deficit is actually higher than the company's market capitalization of US$2.95b, we think shareholders really should watch SkyWest'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 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). 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).
SkyWest's debt is 2.9 times its EBITDA, and its EBIT cover its interest expense 4.4 times over. Taken together this implies that, while we wouldn't want to see debt levels rise, we think it can handle its current leverage. On the other hand, SkyWest grew its EBIT by 24% in the last year. If it can maintain that kind of improvement, its debt load will begin to melt away like glaciers in a warming world. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine SkyWest's ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. 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 the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. During the last three years, SkyWest burned a lot of cash. While that may be a result of expenditure for growth, it does make the debt far more risky.
On the face of it, SkyWest's level of total liabilities 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. Looking at the bigger picture, it seems clear to us that SkyWest's use of debt is creating risks for the company. If everything goes well that may pay off but the downside of this debt is a greater risk of permanent losses. In light of our reservations about the company's balance sheet, it seems sensible to check if insiders have been selling shares recently.
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.
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If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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. Simply Wall St has no position in the stocks mentioned. Thank you for reading.