Warren Buffett famously said, 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' 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 note that Allegheny Technologies Incorporated (NYSE:ATI) does have debt on its balance sheet. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
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. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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. Of course, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
What Is Allegheny Technologies's Net Debt?
The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Allegheny Technologies had US$1.54b in debt in June 2019; about the same as the year before. However, it also had US$281.2m in cash, and so its net debt is US$1.26b.
A Look At Allegheny Technologies's Liabilities
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Allegheny Technologies had liabilities of US$759.2m falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$2.65b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$281.2m as well as receivables valued at US$622.3m due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$2.51b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
Given this deficit is actually higher than the company's market capitalization of US$2.32b, we think shareholders really should watch Allegheny Technologies's debt levels, like a parent watching their child ride a bike for the first time. In the scenario where the company had to clean up its balance sheet quickly, it seems likely shareholders would suffer extensive dilution.
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.
Allegheny Technologies has a debt to EBITDA ratio of 2.8 and its EBIT covered its interest expense 2.9 times. This suggests that while the debt levels are significant, we'd stop short of calling them problematic. The good news is that Allegheny Technologies improved its EBIT by 6.6% over the last twelve years, thus gradually reducing its debt levels relative to its earnings. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Allegheny Technologies's ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. 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. Considering the last three years, Allegheny Technologies actually recorded a cash outflow, overall. 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.
On the face of it, Allegheny Technologies's level of total liabilities left us tentative about the stock, and its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow was no more enticing than the one empty restaurant on the busiest night of the year. But on the bright side, its EBIT growth rate is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. We're quite clear that we consider Allegheny Technologies 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 Allegheny Technologies 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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