June 19, 2024

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.' So it seems the smart money knows that debt – which is usually involved in bankruptcies – is a very important factor, when you assess how risky a company is. We can see that The York Water Company (NASDAQ:YORW) does use debt in its business. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. 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. Of course, the upside of debt is that it often represents cheap capital, especially when it replaces dilution in a company with the ability to reinvest at high rates of return. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
View our latest analysis for York Water
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that York Water had US$118.3m of debt in June 2022, down from US$129.3m, one year before. However, it does have US$2.64m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about US$115.6m.
According to the last reported balance sheet, York Water had liabilities of US$22.6m due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$263.2m due beyond 12 months. On the other hand, it had cash of US$2.64m and US$9.18m worth of receivables due within a year. So it has liabilities totalling US$274.0m more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
York Water has a market capitalization of US$661.1m, so it could very likely raise cash to ameliorate its balance sheet, if the need arose. However, it is still worthwhile taking a close look at its ability to pay off debt.
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).
York Water's debt is 3.6 times its EBITDA, and its EBIT cover its interest expense 4.6 times over. Taken together this implies that, while we wouldn't want to see debt levels rise, we think it can handle its current leverage. Importantly York Water's EBIT was essentially flat over the last twelve months. We would prefer to see some earnings growth, because that always helps diminish debt. 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 York Water 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.
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, York Water 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.
Mulling over York Water's attempt at converting EBIT to free cash flow, we're certainly not enthusiastic. But at least its EBIT growth rate is not so bad. We should also note that Water Utilities industry companies like York Water commonly do use debt without problems. Once we consider all the factors above, together, it seems to us that York Water's debt is making it a bit risky. Some people like that sort of risk, but we're mindful of the potential pitfalls, so we'd probably prefer it carry less debt. 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. To that end, you should learn about the 3 warning signs we've spotted with York Water (including 1 which is potentially serious) .
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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This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. We provide commentary based on historical data and analyst forecasts only using an unbiased methodology and our articles are not intended to be financial advice. It does not constitute a recommendation to buy or sell any stock, and does not take account of your objectives, or your financial situation. We aim to bring you long-term focused analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material. Simply Wall St has no position in any stocks mentioned.

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The York Water Company impounds, purifies, and distributes drinking water.
Proven track record average dividend payer.
Simply Wall St's Editorial Team provides unbiased, factual reporting on global stocks using in-depth fundamental analysis.
Find out more about our editorial guidelines and team.
The York Water Company impounds, purifies, and distributes drinking water.
Proven track record average dividend payer.
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