Legendary fund manager Li Lu (who Charlie Munger backed) once said, 'The biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a permanent loss of capital.' 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. As with many other companies Kinder Morgan, Inc. (NYSE:KMI) makes use of debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
Why Does Debt Bring Risk?
Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. 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.
What Is Kinder Morgan's Net Debt?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that Kinder Morgan had US$36.1b of debt in June 2019, down from US$37.7b, one year before. Net debt is about the same, since the it doesn't have much cash.
How Strong Is Kinder Morgan's Balance Sheet?
The latest balance sheet data shows that Kinder Morgan had liabilities of US$5.66b due within a year, and liabilities of US$35.8b falling due after that. Offsetting this, it had US$247.0m in cash and US$1.27b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$39.9b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
This is a mountain of leverage even relative to its gargantuan market capitalization of US$45.0b. 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.
Weak interest cover of 2.2 times and a disturbingly high net debt to EBITDA ratio of 5.6 hit our confidence in Kinder Morgan like a one-two punch to the gut. This means we'd consider it to have a heavy debt load. On a slightly more positive note, Kinder Morgan grew its EBIT at 13% over the last year, further increasing its ability to manage debt. 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 Kinder Morgan'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 company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. In the last three years, Kinder Morgan's free cash flow amounted to 48% of its EBIT, less than we'd expect. That weak cash conversion makes it more difficult to handle indebtedness.
On the face of it, Kinder Morgan's interest cover left us tentative about the stock, and its net debt to EBITDA was no more enticing than the one empty restaurant on the busiest night of the year. But at least it's pretty decent at growing its EBIT; that's encouraging. Once we consider all the factors above, together, it seems to us that Kinder Morgan's debt is making it a bit risky. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but we'd generally feel more comfortable with less leverage. Given our hesitation about the stock, it would be good to know if Kinder Morgan insiders have sold any shares recently. You click here to find out if insiders have sold recently.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.