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TEGNA (NYSE:TGNA) Takes On Some Risk With Its Use Of Debt

Simply Wall St

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.' 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 TEGNA Inc. (NYSE:TGNA) does use debt in its business. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?

What Risk Does Debt Bring?

Debt is a tool to help businesses grow, but if a business is incapable of paying off its lenders, then it exists at their mercy. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. However, a more usual (but still expensive) situation is where a company must dilute shareholders at a cheap share price simply to get debt under control. 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.

View our latest analysis for TEGNA

What Is TEGNA's Net Debt?

The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that TEGNA had debt of US$2.95b at the end of June 2019, a reduction from US$3.13b over a year. And it doesn't have much cash, so its net debt is about the same.

NYSE:TGNA Historical Debt, August 12th 2019

How Healthy Is TEGNA's Balance Sheet?

According to the last reported balance sheet, TEGNA had liabilities of US$276.5m due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$3.66b due beyond 12 months. On the other hand, it had cash of US$29.3m and US$472.0m worth of receivables due within a year. So it has liabilities totalling US$3.43b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.

When you consider that this deficiency exceeds the company's US$3.05b market capitalization, you might well be inclined to review the balance sheet, just like one might study a new partner's social media. 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 use two main ratios to inform us about debt levels relative to earnings. The first is net debt divided by earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA), while the second is how many times its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) covers its interest expense (or its interest cover, for short). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.

TEGNA's debt is 3.8 times its EBITDA, and its EBIT cover its interest expense 3.7 times over. This suggests that while the debt levels are significant, we'd stop short of calling them problematic. On the other hand, TEGNA grew its EBIT by 24% in the last year. If sustained, this growth should make that debt evaporate like a scarce drinking water during an unnaturally hot summer. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine TEGNA'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.

Finally, a business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. During the last three years, TEGNA produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 64% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This free cash flow puts the company in a good position to pay down debt, when appropriate.

Our View

TEGNA's level of total liabilities and net debt to EBITDA definitely weigh on it, in our esteem. But the good news is it seems to be able to grow its EBIT with ease. Looking at all the angles mentioned above, it does seem to us that TEGNA 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 TEGNA'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.