Legendary fund manager Li Lu (who Charlie Munger backed) once said, ‘The biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a permanent loss of capital.’ So it might be obvious that you need to consider debt, when you think about how risky any given stock is, because too much debt can sink a company. Importantly, Evergy, Inc. (NYSE:EVRG) does carry debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
What Risk Does Debt Bring?
Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of ‘creative destruction’ where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. 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. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well – and to its own advantage. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
How Much Debt Does Evergy Carry?
As you can see below, at the end of September 2021, Evergy had US$10.8b of debt, up from US$10.2b a year ago. Click the image for more detail. And it doesn’t have much cash, so its net debt is about the same.
A Look At Evergy’s Liabilities
The latest balance sheet data shows that Evergy had liabilities of US$2.67b due within a year, and liabilities of US$16.2b falling due after that. Offsetting this, it had US$25.3m in cash and US$398.4m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$18.4b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
Given this deficit is actually higher than the company’s massive market capitalization of US$14.0b, we think shareholders really should watch Evergy’s debt levels, like a parent watching their child ride a bike for the first time. 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.
Evergy’s debt is 4.7 times its EBITDA, and its EBIT cover its interest expense 3.8 times over. This suggests that while the debt levels are significant, we’d stop short of calling them problematic. On a slightly more positive note, Evergy grew its EBIT at 15% over the last year, further increasing its ability to manage debt. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Evergy can strengthen its balance sheet over time.
But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. In the last three years, Evergy created free cash flow amounting to 8.5% of its EBIT, an uninspiring performance. For us, cash conversion that low sparks a little paranoia about is ability to extinguish debt.
To be frank both Evergy’s net debt to EBITDA and its track record of staying on top of its total liabilities make us rather uncomfortable with its debt levels. But on the bright side, its EBIT growth rate is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. We should also note that Electric Utilities industry companies like Evergy commonly do use debt without problems. Overall, we think it’s fair to say that Evergy 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.