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Here's Why Enerplus (TSE:ERF) Can Manage Its Debt Responsibly

Simply Wall St

Some say volatility, rather than debt, is the best way to think about risk as an investor, but Warren Buffett famously said that 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' 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 can see that Enerplus Corporation (TSE:ERF) does use debt in its business. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?

When Is Debt Dangerous?

Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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 examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.

See our latest analysis for Enerplus

What Is Enerplus's Debt?

As you can see below, Enerplus had CA$611.5m of debt at June 2019, down from CA$672.2m a year prior. However, it also had CA$252.5m in cash, and so its net debt is CA$359.0m.

TSX:ERF Historical Debt, September 4th 2019

How Strong Is Enerplus's Balance Sheet?

We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Enerplus had liabilities of CA$475.2m falling due within a year, and liabilities of CA$675.9m due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of CA$252.5m as well as receivables valued at CA$160.0m due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling CA$738.5m more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.

This deficit isn't so bad because Enerplus is worth CA$1.98b, and thus could probably raise enough capital to shore up its balance sheet, if the need arose. But we definitely want to keep our eyes open to indications that its debt is bringing too much risk.

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). 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).

Enerplus's net debt is only 0.40 times its EBITDA. And its EBIT covers its interest expense a whopping 15.8 times over. So you could argue it is no more threatened by its debt than an elephant is by a mouse. Better yet, Enerplus grew its EBIT by 301% last year, which is an impressive improvement. If maintained that growth will make the debt even more manageable in the years ahead. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Enerplus can strengthen its balance sheet over time. 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 we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. In the last three years, Enerplus created free cash flow amounting to 7.8% of its EBIT, an uninspiring performance. That limp level of cash conversion undermines its ability to manage and pay down debt.

Our View

Happily, Enerplus's impressive interest cover implies it has the upper hand on its debt. But the stark truth is that we are concerned by its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow. Looking at all the aforementioned factors together, it strikes us that Enerplus can handle its debt fairly comfortably. On the plus side, this leverage can boost shareholder returns, but the potential downside is more risk of loss, so it's worth monitoring the balance sheet. Of course, we wouldn't say no to the extra confidence that we'd gain if we knew that Enerplus insiders have been buying shares: if you're on the same wavelength, you can find out if insiders are buying by clicking this link.

At the end of the day, it's often better to focus on companies that are free from net debt. You can access our special list of such companies (all with a track record of profit growth). It's free.

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.