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. 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. As with many other companies Black Hills Corporation (NYSE:BKH) makes use of debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
When Is Debt A Problem?
Debt and other liabilities become risky for a business when it cannot easily fulfill those obligations, either with free cash flow or by raising capital at an attractive price. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. 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, the upside of debt is that it often represents cheap capital, especially when it replaces dilution in a company with the ability to reinvest at high rates of return. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
How Much Debt Does Black Hills Carry?
As you can see below, Black Hills had US$3.35b of debt, at September 2019, which is about the same the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. And it doesn't have much cash, so its net debt is about the same.
How Strong Is Black Hills's Balance Sheet?
The latest balance sheet data shows that Black Hills had liabilities of US$691.1m due within a year, and liabilities of US$4.15b falling due after that. Offsetting this, it had US$13.1m in cash and US$161.9m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$4.67b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
When you consider that this deficiency exceeds the company's US$4.61b market capitalization, you might well be inclined to review the balance sheet intently. 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). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.
With a net debt to EBITDA ratio of 5.6, it's fair to say Black Hills does have a significant amount of debt. But the good news is that it boasts fairly comforting interest cover of 2.8 times, suggesting it can responsibly service its obligations. Notably, Black Hills's EBIT was pretty flat over the last year, which isn't ideal given the debt load. 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 Black Hills'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. Over the last three years, Black Hills 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 Black Hills's conversion of EBIT to free cash flow and its track record of managing its debt, based on its EBITDA, make us rather uncomfortable with its debt levels. But at least its EBIT growth rate is not so bad. We should also note that Integrated Utilities industry companies like Black Hills commonly do use debt without problems. We're quite clear that we consider Black Hills to be really rather risky, as a result of its balance sheet health. For this reason we're pretty cautious about the stock, and we think shareholders should keep a close eye on its liquidity. Given our hesitation about the stock, it would be good to know if Black Hills 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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