Some say volatility, rather than debt, is the best way to think about risk as an investor, but Warren Buffett famously said that 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk. It's only natural to consider a company's balance sheet when you examine how risky it is, since debt is often involved when a business collapses. Importantly, H&E Equipment Services, Inc. (NASDAQ:HEES) does carry debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
Why Does Debt Bring Risk?
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. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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. 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. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
How Much Debt Does H&E Equipment Services Carry?
As you can see below, at the end of June 2019, H&E Equipment Services had US$1.25b of debt, up from US$1.11b a year ago. Click the image for more detail. Net debt is about the same, since the it doesn't have much cash.
How Strong Is H&E Equipment Services's Balance Sheet?
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that H&E Equipment Services had liabilities of US$197.5m due within 12 months and liabilities of US$1.59b due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$6.70m and US$200.0m worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$1.58b.
The deficiency here weighs heavily on the US$1.05b company itself, as if a child were struggling under the weight of an enormous back-pack full of books, his sports gear, and a trumpet." So we'd watch its balance sheet closely, without a doubt After all, H&E Equipment Services would likely require a major re-capitalisation if it had to pay its creditors today.
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.
H&E Equipment Services has a rather high debt to EBITDA ratio of 6.0 which suggests a meaningful debt load. However, its interest coverage of 2.6 is reasonably strong, which is a good sign. On the other hand, H&E Equipment Services grew its EBIT by 24% in the last year. If sustained, this growth should make that debt evaporate like a scarce drinking water during an unnaturally hot summer. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine H&E Equipment Services'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 clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. In the last three years, H&E Equipment Services basically broke even on a free cash flow basis. While many companies do operate at break-even, we prefer see substantial free cash flow, especially if a it already has dead.
On the face of it, H&E Equipment Services's level of total liabilities left us tentative about the stock, and its net debt to EBITDA was no more enticing than the one empty restaurant on the busiest night of the year. But on the bright side, its EBIT growth rate is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. We're quite clear that we consider H&E Equipment Services 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 concerns about H&E Equipment Services'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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