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Is Contura Energy (NYSE:CTRA) A Risky Investment?

Simply Wall St

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 can see that Contura Energy, Inc. (NYSE:CTRA) does use debt in its business. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?

When Is Debt A Problem?

Debt is a tool to help businesses grow, but if a business is incapable of paying off its lenders, then it exists at their mercy. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. While that is not too common, we often do see indebted companies permanently diluting shareholders because lenders force them to raise capital at a distressed price. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well - and to its own advantage. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.

View our latest analysis for Contura Energy

How Much Debt Does Contura Energy Carry?

The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at June 2019 Contura Energy had debt of US$600.7m, up from US$367.1m in one year. On the flip side, it has US$249.6m in cash leading to net debt of about US$351.1m.

NYSE:CTRA Historical Debt, November 9th 2019

How Healthy Is Contura Energy's Balance Sheet?

We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Contura Energy had liabilities of US$326.4m falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$1.49b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had US$249.6m in cash and US$282.2m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$1.28b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.

This deficit casts a shadow over the US$400.7m 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, Contura Energy 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). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.

While Contura Energy's low debt to EBITDA ratio of 0.91 suggests only modest use of debt, the fact that EBIT only covered the interest expense by 4.5 last year does give us pause. But the interest payments are certainly sufficient to have us thinking about how affordable its debt is. We note that Contura Energy grew its EBIT by 24% in the last year, and that should make it easier to pay down debt, going forward. 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 Contura Energy'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, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. During the last three years, Contura Energy produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 78% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.

Our View

Contura Energy's level of total liabilities was a real negative on this analysis, although the other factors we considered cast it in a significantly better light. For example its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow was refreshing. Looking at all the angles mentioned above, it does seem to us that Contura Energy is a somewhat risky investment as a result of its debt. That's not necessarily a bad thing, since leverage can boost returns on equity, but it is something to be aware of. Above most other metrics, we think its important to track how fast earnings per share is growing, if at all. If you've also come to that realization, you're in luck, because today you can view this interactive graph of Contura Energy's earnings per share history for free.

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.