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. When we think about how risky a company is, we always like to look at its use of debt, since debt overload can lead to ruin. Importantly, Deutsche Telekom AG (ETR:DTE) does carry debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
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. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. 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. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
What Is Deutsche Telekom's Debt?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at June 2019 Deutsche Telekom had debt of €64.2b, up from €61.3b in one year. On the flip side, it has €6.08b in cash leading to net debt of about €58.1b.
A Look At Deutsche Telekom's Liabilities
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Deutsche Telekom had liabilities of €35.1b due within 12 months and liabilities of €86.5b due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of €6.08b and €12.3b worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities total €103.1b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
When you consider that this deficiency exceeds the company's huge €71.4b market capitalization, you might well be inclined to review the balance sheet intently. Hypothetically, extremely heavy dilution would be required if the company were forced to pay down its liabilities by raising capital at the current share price.
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.
Deutsche Telekom's debt is 2.5 times its EBITDA, and its EBIT cover its interest expense 4.7 times over. This suggests that while the debt levels are significant, we'd stop short of calling them problematic. Unfortunately, Deutsche Telekom saw its EBIT slide 6.4% in the last twelve months. If that earnings trend continues then its debt load will grow heavy like the heart of a polar bear watching its sole cub. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Deutsche Telekom 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.
But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. In the last three years, Deutsche Telekom's free cash flow amounted to 28% of its EBIT, less than we'd expect. That's not great, when it comes to paying down debt.
Mulling over Deutsche Telekom's attempt at staying on top of its total liabilities, we're certainly not enthusiastic. Having said that, its ability to cover its interest expense with its EBIT isn't such a worry. Overall, it seems to us that Deutsche Telekom's balance sheet is really quite a risk to the business. So we're almost as wary of this stock as a hungry kitten is about falling into its owner's fish pond: once bitten, twice shy, as they say. Another positive for shareholders is that it pays dividends. So if you like receiving those dividend payments, check Deutsche Telekom's dividend history, without delay!
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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