Howard Marks put it nicely when he said that, rather than worrying about share price volatility, 'The possibility of permanent loss is the risk I worry about... and every practical investor I know worries about.' 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 RGC Resources, Inc. ( NASDAQ:RGCO ) does have debt on its balance sheet. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
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. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well - and to its own advantage. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
How Much Debt Does RGC Resources Carry?
As you can see below, at the end of June 2019, RGC Resources had US$91.0m of debt, up from US$57.1m a year ago. Click the image for more detail. Net debt is about the same, since the it doesn't have much cash.
How Healthy Is RGC Resources's Balance Sheet?
According to the last reported balance sheet, RGC Resources had liabilities of US$23.5m due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$136.1m due beyond 12 months. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$1.25m as well as receivables valued at US$5.31m due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$153.1m more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
This deficit is considerable relative to its market capitalization of US$233.9m, so it does suggest shareholders should keep an eye on RGC Resources's use of debt. 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.
RGC Resources's debt is 4.6 times its EBITDA, and its EBIT cover its interest expense 3.6 times over. Taken together this implies that, while we wouldn't want to see debt levels rise, we think it can handle its current leverage. The good news is that RGC Resources improved its EBIT by 3.2% over the last twelve years, thus gradually reducing its debt levels relative to its earnings. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if RGC Resources 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 business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. Over the last three years, RGC Resources saw substantial negative free cash flow, in total. While investors are no doubt expecting a reversal of that situation in due course, it clearly does mean its use of debt is more risky.
Mulling over RGC Resources's attempt at converting EBIT to free cash flow, we're certainly not enthusiastic. Having said that, its ability to grow its EBIT isn't such a worry. It's also worth noting that RGC Resources is in the Gas Utilities industry, which is often considered to be quite defensive. Overall, we think it's fair to say that RGC Resources has enough debt that there are some real risks around the balance sheet. If all goes well, that should boost returns, but on the flip side, the risk of permanent capital loss is elevated by the debt. 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 RGC Resources's earnings per share history for free.
When all is said and done, sometimes its easier to focus on companies that don't even need debt. Readers can access a list of growth stocks with zero net debt 100% free , right now.
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