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.' 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. We can see that Exelon Corporation (NYSE:EXC) does use debt in its business. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
When Is Debt Dangerous?
Generally speaking, debt only becomes a real problem when a company can't easily pay it off, either by raising capital or with its own cash flow. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. 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, 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.
What Is Exelon's Net Debt?
The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Exelon had US$37.1b in debt in June 2019; about the same as the year before. Net debt is about the same, since the it doesn't have much cash.
A Look At Exelon's Liabilities
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Exelon had liabilities of US$12.9b due within 12 months and liabilities of US$74.8b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$735.0m as well as receivables valued at US$5.13b due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$81.8b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
The deficiency here weighs heavily on the US$44.2b company itself, as if a child were struggling under the weight of an enormous back-pack full of books, his sports gear, and a trumpet. So we'd watch its balance sheet closely, without a doubt After all, Exelon would likely require a major re-capitalisation if it had to pay its creditors today.
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). The advantage of this approach is that we take into account both the absolute quantum of debt (with net debt to EBITDA) and the actual interest expenses associated with that debt (with its interest cover ratio).
Exelon has a debt to EBITDA ratio of 3.9 and its EBIT covered its interest expense 2.7 times. Taken together this implies that, while we wouldn't want to see debt levels rise, we think it can handle its current leverage. Investors should also be troubled by the fact that Exelon saw its EBIT drop by 14% over the last twelve months. If things keep going like that, handling the debt will about as easy as bundling an angry house cat into its travel box. 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 Exelon'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.
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. Considering the last three years, Exelon actually recorded a cash outflow, overall. Debt is usually more expensive, and almost always more risky in the hands of a company with negative free cash flow. Shareholders ought to hope for and improvement.
We'd go so far as to say Exelon's level of total liabilities was disappointing. And even its interest cover fails to inspire much confidence. We should also note that Electric Utilities industry companies like Exelon commonly do use debt without problems. After considering the datapoints discussed, we think Exelon has too much debt. While some investors love that sort of risky play, it's certainly not our cup of tea. Given Exelon has a strong balance sheet is profitable and pays a dividend, it would be good to know how fast its dividends are growing, if at all. You can find out instantly by clicking this link.
At the end of the day, it's often better to focus on companies that are free from net debt. You can access our special list of such companies (all with a track record of profit growth). It's free.
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