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. Importantly, Austin Engineering Limited (ASX:ANG) does carry debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
Why Does Debt Bring Risk?
Debt and other liabilities become risky for a business when it cannot easily fulfill those obligations, either with free cash flow or by raising capital at an attractive price. 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. 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 think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
What Is Austin Engineering's Debt?
As you can see below, Austin Engineering had AU$21.3m of debt at June 2019, down from AU$36.3m a year prior. However, it also had AU$6.86m in cash, and so its net debt is AU$14.4m.
How Healthy Is Austin Engineering's Balance Sheet?
According to the last reported balance sheet, Austin Engineering had liabilities of AU$70.4m due within 12 months, and liabilities of AU$5.55m due beyond 12 months. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of AU$6.86m as well as receivables valued at AU$51.1m due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by AU$18.0m.
Given Austin Engineering has a market capitalization of AU$110.0m, it's hard to believe these liabilities pose much threat. Having said that, it's clear that we should continue to monitor its balance sheet, lest it change for the worse.
We measure a company's debt load relative to its earnings power by looking at its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and by calculating how easily its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) cover its interest expense (interest cover). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
While Austin Engineering's low debt to EBITDA ratio of 0.81 suggests only modest use of debt, the fact that EBIT only covered the interest expense by 3.6 last year does give us pause. So we'd recommend keeping a close eye on the impact financing costs are having on the business. It is well worth noting that Austin Engineering's EBIT shot up like bamboo after rain, gaining 60% in the last twelve months. That'll make it easier to manage its debt. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Austin Engineering's ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. 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 it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. Over the last three years, Austin Engineering saw substantial negative free cash flow, in total. While that may be a result of expenditure for growth, it does make the debt far more risky.
Based on what we've seen Austin Engineering is not finding it easy conversion of EBIT to free cash flow, but the other factors we considered give us cause to be optimistic. In particular, we are dazzled with its EBIT growth rate. When we consider all the factors mentioned above, we do feel a bit cautious about Austin Engineering's use of debt. While we appreciate debt can enhance returns on equity, we'd suggest that shareholders keep close watch on its debt levels, lest they increase. Of course, we wouldn't say no to the extra confidence that we'd gain if we knew that Austin Engineering 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.
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