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Is Anglo American (LON:AAL) Using Too Much Debt?

Simply Wall St

Howard Marks put it nicely when he said that, rather than worrying about share price volatility, 'The possibility of permanent loss is the risk I worry about... and every practical investor I know worries about.' 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. Importantly, Anglo American plc (LON:AAL) does carry debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?

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. 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. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.

Check out our latest analysis for Anglo American

What Is Anglo American's Net Debt?

As you can see below, Anglo American had US$9.78b 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$7.13b in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about US$2.64b.

LSE:AAL Historical Debt, September 8th 2019

How Strong Is Anglo American's Balance Sheet?

According to the last reported balance sheet, Anglo American had liabilities of US$6.36b due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$17.2b due beyond 12 months. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$7.13b as well as receivables valued at US$2.72b due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$13.7b.

Anglo American has a very large market capitalization of US$31.4b, 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.

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). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.

Anglo American's net debt is only 0.30 times its EBITDA. And its EBIT easily covers its interest expense, being 18.5 times the size. So we're pretty relaxed about its super-conservative use of debt. Another good sign is that Anglo American has been able to increase its EBIT by 23% in twelve months, making it easier to pay down debt. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Anglo American can strengthen its balance sheet over time. So if you're focused on the future you can check out this free report showing analyst profit forecasts.

Finally, a business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. During the last three years, Anglo American produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 79% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.

Our View

The good news is that Anglo American's demonstrated ability to cover its interest expense with its EBIT delights us like a fluffy puppy does a toddler. But, on a more sombre note, we are a little concerned by its level of total liabilities. Zooming out, Anglo American seems to use debt quite reasonably; and that gets the nod from us. After all, sensible leverage can boost returns on equity. Of course, we wouldn't say no to the extra confidence that we'd gain if we knew that Anglo American insiders have been buying shares: if you're on the same wavelength, you can find out if insiders are buying by clicking this link.

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.

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.