David Iben put it well when he said, 'Volatility is not a risk we care about. What we care about is avoiding the permanent loss of capital.' 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. We can see that Enel SpA (BIT:ENEL) does use debt in its business. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
When Is Debt Dangerous?
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. While that is not too common, we often do see indebted companies permanently diluting shareholders because lenders force them to raise capital at a distressed price. Of course, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
What Is Enel's Debt?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that as of June 2019 Enel had €60.4b of debt, an increase on €56.2b, over one year. However, it also had €9.18b in cash, and so its net debt is €51.2b.
How Strong Is Enel's Balance Sheet?
The latest balance sheet data shows that Enel had liabilities of €40.0b due within a year, and liabilities of €81.6b falling due after that. On the other hand, it had cash of €9.18b and €19.1b worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities total €93.4b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
Given this deficit is actually higher than the company's massive market capitalization of €63.4b, we think shareholders really should watch Enel's debt levels, like a parent watching their child ride a bike for the first time. 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). 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).
Enel has a debt to EBITDA ratio of 3.4 and its EBIT covered its interest expense 4.3 times. This suggests that while the debt levels are significant, we'd stop short of calling them problematic. Notably, Enel's EBIT was pretty flat over the last year, which isn't ideal given the debt load. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Enel'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 the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. In the last three years, Enel created free cash flow amounting to 18% of its EBIT, an uninspiring performance. For us, cash conversion that low sparks a little paranoia about is ability to extinguish debt.
Mulling over Enel's attempt at staying on top of its total liabilities, we're certainly not enthusiastic. Having said that, its ability to grow its EBIT isn't such a worry. We should also note that Electric Utilities industry companies like Enel commonly do use debt without problems. We're quite clear that we consider Enel to be really rather risky, as a result of its balance sheet health. For this reason we're pretty cautious about the stock, and we think shareholders should keep a close eye on its liquidity. Another positive for shareholders is that it pays dividends. So if you like receiving those dividend payments, check Enel's dividend history, without delay!
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.
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