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Is Scatec (OB:SCATC) Using Too Much Debt?

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. As with many other companies Scatec ASA (OB:SCATC) makes use of debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?

Why Does Debt Bring Risk?

Debt is a tool to help businesses grow, but if a business is incapable of paying off its lenders, then it exists at their mercy. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. 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 examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.

View our latest analysis for Scatec

What Is Scatec's Net Debt?

The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at September 2021 Scatec had debt of kr20.7b, up from kr14.5b in one year. However, it does have kr4.33b in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about kr16.3b.

How Strong Is Scatec's Balance Sheet?

According to the last reported balance sheet, Scatec had liabilities of kr2.61b due within 12 months, and liabilities of kr21.1b due beyond 12 months. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of kr4.33b as well as receivables valued at kr823.0m due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling kr18.5b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.

This is a mountain of leverage relative to its market capitalization of kr21.2b. Should its lenders demand that it shore up the balance sheet, shareholders would likely face severe dilution.

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). The advantage of this approach is that we take into account both the absolute quantum of debt (with net debt to EBITDA) and the actual interest expenses associated with that debt (with its interest cover ratio).

Weak interest cover of 1.0 times and a disturbingly high net debt to EBITDA ratio of 7.8 hit our confidence in Scatec like a one-two punch to the gut. The debt burden here is substantial. Even more troubling is the fact that Scatec actually let its EBIT decrease by 4.0% over the last year. If it keeps going like that paying off its debt will be like running on a treadmill -- a lot of effort for not much advancement. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Scatec 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 we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. Over the last three years, Scatec 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.

Our View

On the face of it, Scatec's interest cover left us tentative about the stock, and its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow was no more enticing than the one empty restaurant on the busiest night of the year. But at least its EBIT growth rate is not so bad. After considering the datapoints discussed, we think Scatec has too much debt. That sort of riskiness is ok for some, but it certainly doesn't float our boat. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. For instance, we've identified 2 warning signs for Scatec (1 is potentially serious) you should be aware of.

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