The external fund manager backed by Berkshire Hathaway's Charlie Munger, Li Lu, makes no bones about it when he says '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 Dominion Energy, Inc. (NYSE:D) makes use of debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
What Risk Does Debt Bring?
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 common (but still painful) scenario is that it has to raise new equity capital at a low price, thus permanently diluting shareholders. 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. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
What Is Dominion Energy's Debt?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at June 2019 Dominion Energy had debt of US$42.0b, up from US$37.8b in one year. And it doesn't have much cash, so its net debt is about the same.
A Look At Dominion Energy's Liabilities
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Dominion Energy had liabilities of US$9.50b falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$62.9b due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$382.0m and US$2.10b worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities total US$70.0b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
When you consider that this deficiency exceeds the company's huge US$63.9b market capitalization, you might well be inclined to review the balance sheet, just like one might study a new partner's social media. 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.
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.
Dominion Energy shareholders face the double whammy of a high net debt to EBITDA ratio (6.2), and fairly weak interest coverage, since EBIT is just 2.4 times the interest expense. This means we'd consider it to have a heavy debt load. More concerning, Dominion Energy saw its EBIT drop by 2.7% in the last twelve months. If it keeps going like that paying off its debt will be like running on a treadmill -- a lot of effort for not much advancement. 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 Dominion Energy's ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. So if you want to see what the professionals think, you might find this free report on analyst profit forecasts to be interesting.
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. Considering the last three years, Dominion Energy 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.
To be frank both Dominion Energy's conversion of EBIT to free cash flow and its track record of managing its debt, based on its EBITDA, make us rather uncomfortable with its debt levels. But at least its EBIT growth rate is not so bad. We should also note that Integrated Utilities industry companies like Dominion Energy commonly do use debt without problems. Overall, it seems to us that Dominion Energy's balance sheet is really quite a risk to the business. For this reason we're pretty cautious about the stock, and we think shareholders should keep a close eye on its liquidity. Given our concerns about Dominion Energy's debt levels, it seems only prudent to check if insiders have been ditching the stock.
If, after all that, you're more interested in a fast growing company with a rock-solid balance sheet, then check out our list of net cash growth stocks without delay.
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