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E.ON (FRA:EOAN) Seems To Be Using An Awful Lot Of Debt

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Simply Wall St
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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.' 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 note that E.ON SE (FRA:EOAN) does have debt on its balance sheet. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?

Why Does Debt Bring Risk?

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. 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, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.

View our latest analysis for E.ON

How Much Debt Does E.ON Carry?

You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that E.ON had €10.6b of debt in March 2019, down from €12.7b, one year before. On the flip side, it has €2.91b in cash leading to net debt of about €7.67b.

DB:EOAN Historical Debt, August 7th 2019
DB:EOAN Historical Debt, August 7th 2019

How Healthy Is E.ON's Balance Sheet?

The latest balance sheet data shows that E.ON had liabilities of €15.7b due within a year, and liabilities of €31.9b falling due after that. Offsetting this, it had €2.91b in cash and €7.29b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling €37.3b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.

The deficiency here weighs heavily on the €20.0b 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 At the end of the day, E.ON would probably need a major re-capitalization if its creditors were to demand repayment.

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). 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).

E.ON has net debt worth 2.0 times EBITDA, which isn't too much, but its interest cover looks a bit on the low side, with EBIT at only 3.4 times the interest expense. While these numbers do not alarm us, it's worth noting that the cost of the company's debt is having a real impact. E.ON grew its EBIT by 9.8% in the last year. Whilst that hardly knocks our socks off it is a positive when it comes to debt. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if E.ON can strengthen its balance sheet over time. 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 the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. Over the last two years, E.ON saw substantial negative free cash flow, in total. While investors are no doubt expecting a reversal of that situation in due course, it clearly does mean its use of debt is more risky.

Our View

On the face of it, E.ON's conversion of EBIT to free cash flow left us tentative about the stock, and its level of total liabilities was no more enticing than the one empty restaurant on the busiest night of the year. But on the bright side, its EBIT growth rate is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. We should also note that Integrated Utilities industry companies like E.ON commonly do use debt without problems. Overall, it seems to us that E.ON'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 E.ON's dividend history, without delay!

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.