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Alaska Communications Systems Group (NASDAQ:ALSK) Seems To Be Using An Awful Lot Of Debt

Simply Wall St

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 note that Alaska Communications Systems Group, Inc. (NASDAQ:ALSK) does have debt on its balance sheet. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?

What Risk Does Debt Bring?

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. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.

See our latest analysis for Alaska Communications Systems Group

How Much Debt Does Alaska Communications Systems Group Carry?

As you can see below, Alaska Communications Systems Group had US$175.3m of debt, at June 2019, which is about the same the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. However, it does have US$24.1m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about US$151.2m.

NasdaqGS:ALSK Historical Debt, September 15th 2019

How Healthy Is Alaska Communications Systems Group's Balance Sheet?

The latest balance sheet data shows that Alaska Communications Systems Group had liabilities of US$49.1m due within a year, and liabilities of US$320.6m falling due after that. Offsetting this, it had US$24.1m in cash and US$27.6m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$318.0m.

The deficiency here weighs heavily on the US$93.1m company itself, as if a child were struggling under the weight of an enormous back-pack full of books, his sports gear, and a trumpet. So we'd watch its balance sheet closely, without a doubt At the end of the day, Alaska Communications Systems Group would probably need a major re-capitalization if its creditors were to demand repayment.

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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.

While Alaska Communications Systems Group's debt to EBITDA ratio (2.8) suggests that it uses some debt, its interest cover is very weak, at 1.6, suggesting high leverage. It seems that the business incurs large depreciation and amortisation charges, so maybe its debt load is heavier than it would first appear, since EBITDA is arguably a generous measure of earnings. So shareholders should probably be aware that interest expenses appear to have really impacted the business lately. Investors should also be troubled by the fact that Alaska Communications Systems Group saw its EBIT drop by 13% over the last twelve months. If that's the way things keep going handling the debt load will be like delivering hot coffees on a pogo stick. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But it is Alaska Communications Systems Group's earnings that will influence how the balance sheet holds up in the future. So if you're keen to discover more about its earnings, it might be worth checking out this graph of its long term earnings trend.

Finally, a business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. In the last three years, Alaska Communications Systems Group's free cash flow amounted to 32% of its EBIT, less than we'd expect. That weak cash conversion makes it more difficult to handle indebtedness.

Our View

On the face of it, Alaska Communications Systems Group's interest cover left us tentative about the stock, and its level of total liabilities was no more enticing than the one empty restaurant on the busiest night of the year. Having said that, its ability handle its debt, based on its EBITDA, isn't such a worry. After considering the datapoints discussed, we think Alaska Communications Systems Group has too much debt. While some investors love that sort of risky play, it's certainly not our cup of tea. Given our concerns about Alaska Communications Systems Group's debt levels, it seems only prudent to check if insiders have been ditching the stock.

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.

We aim to bring you long-term focused research analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material.

If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at editorial-team@simplywallst.com. 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.