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. 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. We can see that Aggreko Plc (LON:AGK) does use debt in its business. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
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. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. 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. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well - and to its own advantage. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
What Is Aggreko's Net Debt?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that Aggreko had UK£751.0m of debt in June 2019, down from UK£817.0m, one year before. However, because it has a cash reserve of UK£75.0m, its net debt is less, at about UK£676.0m.
How Strong Is Aggreko's Balance Sheet?
The latest balance sheet data shows that Aggreko had liabilities of UK£563.0m due within a year, and liabilities of UK£708.0m falling due after that. Offsetting this, it had UK£75.0m in cash and UK£710.0m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling UK£486.0m more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
Aggreko has a market capitalization of UK£2.02b, so it could very likely raise cash to ameliorate its balance sheet, if the need arose. But we definitely want to keep our eyes open to indications that its debt is bringing too much risk.
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). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.
While Aggreko's low debt to EBITDA ratio of 1.2 suggests only modest use of debt, the fact that EBIT only covered the interest expense by 5.4 last year does give us pause. But the interest payments are certainly sufficient to have us thinking about how affordable its debt is. Importantly Aggreko's EBIT was essentially flat over the last twelve months. We would prefer to see some earnings growth, because that always helps diminish 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 Aggreko 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 the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. Looking at the most recent three years, Aggreko recorded free cash flow of 43% of its EBIT, which is weaker than we'd expect. That weak cash conversion makes it more difficult to handle indebtedness.
When it comes to the balance sheet, the standout positive for Aggreko was the fact that it seems able handle its debt, based on its EBITDA, confidently. However, our other observations weren't so heartening. For instance it seems like it has to struggle a bit to convert EBIT to free cash flow. Looking at all this data makes us feel a little cautious about Aggreko's debt levels. While debt does have its upside in higher potential returns, we think shareholders should definitely consider how debt levels might make the stock more risky. Given Aggreko has a strong balance sheet is profitable and pays a dividend, it would be good to know how fast its dividends are growing, if at all. You can find out instantly by clicking this link.
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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