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Is Marathon Oil (NYSE:MRO) A Risky Investment?

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 note that Marathon Oil Corporation (NYSE:MRO) does have debt on its balance sheet. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.

Why Does Debt Bring Risk?

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. 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. By replacing dilution, though, debt can be an extremely good tool for businesses that need capital to invest in growth at high rates of return. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.

See our latest analysis for Marathon Oil

How Much Debt Does Marathon Oil Carry?

As you can see below, Marathon Oil had US$5.50b of debt, at June 2019, which is about the same the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. However, it also had US$961.0m in cash, and so its net debt is US$4.54b.

NYSE:MRO Historical Debt, November 8th 2019

A Look At Marathon Oil's Liabilities

We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Marathon Oil had liabilities of US$2.47b falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$6.71b due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$961.0m and US$1.14b worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities total US$7.08b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

This is a mountain of leverage even relative to its gargantuan market capitalization of US$10.1b. This suggests shareholders would heavily diluted if the company needed to shore up its balance sheet in a hurry.

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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.

While Marathon Oil's low debt to EBITDA ratio of 1.3 suggests only modest use of debt, the fact that EBIT only covered the interest expense by 3.5 last year does give us pause. So we'd recommend keeping a close eye on the impact financing costs are having on the business. One way Marathon Oil could vanquish its debt would be if it stops borrowing more but continues to grow EBIT at around 11%, as it did over the last year. 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 Marathon Oil 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 we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. Looking at the most recent two years, Marathon Oil recorded free cash flow of 33% of its EBIT, which is weaker than we'd expect. That weak cash conversion makes it more difficult to handle indebtedness.

Our View

Both Marathon Oil's interest cover and its level of total liabilities were discouraging. At least its EBIT growth rate gives us reason to be optimistic. Looking at all the angles mentioned above, it does seem to us that Marathon Oil is a somewhat risky investment as a result of its debt. Not all risk is bad, as it can boost share price returns if it pays off, but this debt risk is worth keeping in mind. Above most other metrics, we think its important to track how fast earnings per share is growing, if at all. If you've also come to that realization, you're in luck, because today you can view this interactive graph of Marathon Oil's earnings per share history for free.

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.