Some say volatility, rather than debt, is the best way to think about risk as an investor, but Warren Buffett famously said that 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk. So it seems the smart money knows that debt - which is usually involved in bankruptcies - is a very important factor, when you assess how risky a company is. We note that Continental Resources, Inc. (NYSE:CLR) does have debt on its balance sheet. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
When Is Debt Dangerous?
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. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. 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. By replacing dilution, though, debt can be an extremely good tool for businesses that need capital to invest in growth at high rates of return. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
How Much Debt Does Continental Resources Carry?
As you can see below, Continental Resources had US$5.77b of debt at June 2019, down from US$6.17b a year prior. However, it does have US$206.5m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about US$5.56b.
A Look At Continental Resources's Liabilities
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Continental Resources had liabilities of US$1.37b falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$7.63b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had US$206.5m in cash and US$1.03b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$7.76b.
This is a mountain of leverage even relative to its gargantuan market capitalization of US$10.3b. Should its lenders demand that it shore up the balance sheet, shareholders would likely face severe dilution.
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.
Continental Resources has net debt worth 1.6 times EBITDA, which isn't too much, but its interest cover looks a bit on the low side, with EBIT at only 5.4 times the interest expense. 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. We note that Continental Resources grew its EBIT by 28% in the last year, and that should make it easier to pay down debt, going forward. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Continental Resources's ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. 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 the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. In the last two years, Continental Resources's free cash flow amounted to 22% of its EBIT, less than we'd expect. That's not great, when it comes to paying down debt.
When it comes to the balance sheet, the standout positive for Continental Resources was the fact that it seems able to grow its EBIT confidently. But the other factors we noted above weren't so encouraging. For example, its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow makes us a little nervous about its debt. When we consider all the factors mentioned above, we do feel a bit cautious about Continental Resources's use of debt. 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. Of course, we wouldn't say no to the extra confidence that we'd gain if we knew that Continental Resources insiders have been buying shares: if you're on the same wavelength, you can find out if insiders are buying by clicking this link.
When all is said and done, sometimes its easier to focus on companies that don't even need debt. Readers can access a list of growth stocks with zero net debt 100% free, right now.
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