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. When we think about how risky a company is, we always like to look at its use of debt, since debt overload can lead to ruin. We note that AECOM (NYSE:ACM) does have debt on its balance sheet. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
Why Does Debt Bring Risk?
Debt is a tool to help businesses grow, but if a business is incapable of paying off its lenders, then it exists at their mercy. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. However, a more usual (but still expensive) situation is where a company must dilute shareholders at a cheap share price simply to get debt under control. 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.
What Is AECOM's Debt?
The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that AECOM had US$3.81b in debt in June 2019; about the same as the year before. On the flip side, it has US$793.6m in cash leading to net debt of about US$3.02b.
How Healthy Is AECOM's Balance Sheet?
According to the last reported balance sheet, AECOM had liabilities of US$5.94b due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$4.36b due beyond 12 months. Offsetting this, it had US$793.6m in cash and US$5.87b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$3.63b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
This deficit isn't so bad because AECOM is worth US$6.40b, and thus could probably raise enough capital to shore up its balance sheet, if the need arose. However, it is still worthwhile taking a close look at its ability to pay off debt.
In order to size up a company's debt relative to its earnings, we calculate its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) divided by its interest expense (its 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).
AECOM has a debt to EBITDA ratio of 3.5 and its EBIT covered its interest expense 2.8 times. This suggests that while the debt levels are significant, we'd stop short of calling them problematic. On the other hand, AECOM grew its EBIT by 22% in the last year. If sustained, this growth should make that debt evaporate like a scarce drinking water during an unnaturally hot summer. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if AECOM 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 always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. During the last three years, AECOM generated free cash flow amounting to a very robust 90% of its EBIT, more than we'd expect. That puts it in a very strong position to pay down debt.
On our analysis AECOM's conversion of EBIT to free cash flow should signal that it won't have too much trouble with its debt. However, our other observations weren't so heartening. For instance it seems like it has to struggle a bit to cover its interest expense with its EBIT. Considering this range of data points, we think AECOM is in a good position to manage its debt levels. But a word of caution: we think debt levels are high enough to justify ongoing monitoring. Above most other metrics, we think its important to track how fast earnings per share is growing, if at all. If you've also come to that realization, you're in luck, because today you can view this interactive graph of AECOM's earnings per share history for free.
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.
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