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. We can see that Cardinal Energy Ltd. (TSE:CJ) does use debt in its business. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
When Is Debt A Problem?
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. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. 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. Of course, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
What Is Cardinal Energy's Debt?
As you can see below, Cardinal Energy had CA$239.2m of debt, at June 2019, which is about the same the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. On the flip side, it has CA$4.91m in cash leading to net debt of about CA$234.3m.
How Healthy Is Cardinal Energy's Balance Sheet?
The latest balance sheet data shows that Cardinal Energy had liabilities of CA$64.8m due within a year, and liabilities of CA$362.5m falling due after that. On the other hand, it had cash of CA$4.91m and CA$41.0m worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities total CA$381.4m more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
Given this deficit is actually higher than the company's market capitalization of CA$295.0m, we think shareholders really should watch Cardinal Energy'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).
Cardinal Energy's net debt is only 1.4 times its EBITDA. And its EBIT easily covers its interest expense, being 11.0 times the size. So you could argue it is no more threatened by its debt than an elephant is by a mouse. Although Cardinal Energy made a loss at the EBIT level, last year, it was also good to see that it generated CA$142m in EBIT over the last twelve months. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Cardinal Energy 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, a company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So it is important to check how much of its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) converts to actual free cash flow. Looking at the most recent year, Cardinal Energy recorded free cash flow of 30% of its EBIT, which is weaker than we'd expect. That's not great, when it comes to paying down debt.
We'd go so far as to say Cardinal Energy's level of total liabilities was disappointing. But on the bright side, its interest cover is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. Once we consider all the factors above, together, it seems to us that Cardinal Energy'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 Cardinal Energy 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.
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