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.' 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, Apache Corporation (NYSE:APA) does carry debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
When Is Debt A Problem?
Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. 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. Of course, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
What Is Apache's Net Debt?
As you can see below, Apache had US$8.27b of debt, at June 2019, which is about the same the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. However, because it has a cash reserve of US$549.0m, its net debt is less, at about US$7.72b.
How Healthy Is Apache's Balance Sheet?
According to the last reported balance sheet, Apache had liabilities of US$2.26b due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$10.8b due beyond 12 months. Offsetting this, it had US$549.0m in cash and US$1.10b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$11.4b.
Given this deficit is actually higher than the company's market capitalization of US$9.56b, we think shareholders really should watch Apache'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.
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.
Even though Apache's debt is only 1.8, 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. Shareholders should be aware that Apache's EBIT was down 42% last year. If that decline continues then paying off debt will be harder than selling foie gras at a vegan convention. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Apache can strengthen its balance sheet over time. So if you're focused on the future you can check out this free report showing analyst profit forecasts.
But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. Over the last two years, Apache saw substantial negative free cash flow, in total. While that may be a result of expenditure for growth, it does make the debt far more risky.
On the face of it, Apache's conversion of EBIT to free cash flow left us tentative about the stock, and its EBIT growth rate was no more enticing than the one empty restaurant on the busiest night of the year. But at least its net debt to EBITDA is not so bad. Taking into account all the aforementioned factors, it looks like Apache has too much debt. While some investors love that sort of risky play, it's certainly not our cup of tea. Given our concerns about Apache's debt levels, it seems only prudent to check if insiders have been ditching the stock.
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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