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.' 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. As with many other companies Altius Minerals Corporation (TSE:ALS) makes use of debt. 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. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. 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. By replacing dilution, though, debt can be an extremely good tool for businesses that need capital to invest in growth at high rates of return. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
What Is Altius Minerals's Net Debt?
As you can see below, at the end of June 2019, Altius Minerals had CA$118.6m of debt, up from CA$65.2m a year ago. Click the image for more detail. However, it does have CA$24.0m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about CA$94.7m.
A Look At Altius Minerals's Liabilities
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Altius Minerals had liabilities of CA$26.5m falling due within a year, and liabilities of CA$156.3m due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had CA$24.0m in cash and CA$16.6m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by CA$142.3m.
Altius Minerals has a market capitalization of CA$497.6m, so it could very likely raise cash to ameliorate its balance sheet, if the need arose. But we definitely want to keep our eyes open to indications that its debt is bringing too much risk.
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.
Even though Altius Minerals's debt is only 2.2, its interest cover is really very low at 2.1. In large part that's it has so much depreciation and amortisation. These charges may be non-cash, so they could be excluded when it comes to paying down debt. But the accounting charges are there for a reason -- some assets are seen to be losing value. Either way there's no doubt the stock is using meaningful leverage. We saw Altius Minerals grow its EBIT by 4.3% in the last twelve months. That's far from incredible but it is a good thing, when it comes to paying off debt. 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 Altius Minerals'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. During the last two years, Altius Minerals generated free cash flow amounting to a very robust 97% of its EBIT, more than we'd expect. That puts it in a very strong position to pay down debt.
On our analysis Altius Minerals's conversion of EBIT to free cash flow should signal that it won't have too much trouble with its debt. But the other factors we noted above weren't so encouraging. To be specific, it seems about as good at covering its interest expense with its EBIT as wet socks are at keeping your feet warm. When we consider all the elements mentioned above, it seems to us that Altius Minerals is managing its debt quite well. But a word of caution: we think debt levels are high enough to justify ongoing monitoring. Of course, we wouldn't say no to the extra confidence that we'd gain if we knew that Altius Minerals insiders have been buying shares: if you're on the same wavelength, you can find out if insiders are buying by clicking this link.
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.
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