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.' 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 note that Southwestern Energy Company (NYSE:SWN) does have debt on its balance sheet. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
When Is Debt Dangerous?
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. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. However, a more common (but still painful) scenario is that it has to raise new equity capital at a low price, thus permanently diluting shareholders. 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. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
How Much Debt Does Southwestern Energy Carry?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Southwestern Energy had debt of US$2.32b at the end of June 2019, a reduction from US$3.57b over a year. However, because it has a cash reserve of US$155.0m, its net debt is less, at about US$2.17b.
A Look At Southwestern Energy's Liabilities
The latest balance sheet data shows that Southwestern Energy had liabilities of US$912.0m due within a year, and liabilities of US$2.55b falling due after that. Offsetting this, it had US$155.0m in cash and US$358.0m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$2.95b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
The deficiency here weighs heavily on the US$852.8m 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, Southwestern Energy would probably need a major re-capitalization if its creditors were to demand repayment.
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). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.
Southwestern Energy's net debt to EBITDA ratio of about 1.5 suggests only moderate use of debt. And its commanding EBIT of 10.5 times its interest expense, implies the debt load is as light as a peacock feather. We saw Southwestern Energy grow its EBIT by 8.8% in the last twelve months. Whilst that hardly knocks our socks off it is a positive when it comes to debt. 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 Southwestern Energy 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, a company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. Over the last three years, Southwestern Energy recorded negative free cash flow, in total. Debt is far more risky for companies with unreliable free cash flow, so shareholders should be hoping that the past expenditure will produce free cash flow in the future.
To be frank both Southwestern Energy's conversion of EBIT to free cash flow and its track record of staying on top of its total liabilities make us rather uncomfortable with its debt levels. But at least it's pretty decent at covering its interest expense with its EBIT; that's encouraging. We're quite clear that we consider Southwestern Energy to be really rather risky, as a result of its balance sheet health. 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. Given our hesitation about the stock, it would be good to know if Southwestern Energy insiders have sold any shares recently. You click here to find out if insiders have sold recently.
If, after all that, you're more interested in a fast growing company with a rock-solid balance sheet, then check out our list of net cash growth stocks without delay.
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