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Atento (NYSE:ATTO) Use Of Debt Could Be Considered Risky

Simply Wall St

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. As with many other companies Atento S.A. (NYSE:ATTO) makes use of debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?

When Is Debt Dangerous?

Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. 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. 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 Atento

How Much Debt Does Atento Carry?

The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at June 2019 Atento had debt of US$521.6m, up from US$483.7m in one year. However, because it has a cash reserve of US$116.6m, its net debt is less, at about US$404.9m.

NYSE:ATTO Historical Debt, August 14th 2019

How Strong Is Atento's Balance Sheet?

Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Atento had liabilities of US$392.6m due within 12 months and liabilities of US$716.2m due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$116.6m as well as receivables valued at US$435.5m due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$556.7m more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

This deficit casts a shadow over the US$168.2m company, like a colossus towering over mere mortals. So we'd watch its balance sheet closely, without a doubt At the end of the day, Atento would probably need a major re-capitalization if its creditors were to demand repayment.

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.

While Atento's debt to EBITDA ratio (3.0) suggests that it uses some debt, its interest cover is very weak, at 1.3, suggesting high leverage. In large part that's due to the company's significant depreciation and amortisation charges, which arguably mean its EBITDA is a very generous measure of earnings, and its debt may be more of a burden than it first appears. It seems clear that the cost of borrowing money is negatively impacting returns for shareholders, of late. Even worse, Atento saw its EBIT tank 51% over the last 12 months. If earnings keep going like that over the long term, it has a snowball's chance in hell of paying off that 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 Atento 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, a business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. During the last three years, Atento produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 54% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This free cash flow puts the company in a good position to pay down debt, when appropriate.

Our View

To be frank both Atento's EBIT growth rate and its track record of staying on top of its total liabilities make us rather uncomfortable with its debt levels. But on the bright side, its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. After considering the datapoints discussed, we think Atento has too much debt. While some investors love that sort of risky play, it's certainly not our cup of tea. Even though Atento lost money on the bottom line, its positive EBIT suggests the business itself has potential. So you might want to check outhow earnings have been trending over the last few years.

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.