Nasdaq-Listed Companies

Air Transport Services Group (NASDAQ:ATSG) Takes On Some Risk With Its Use Of Debt

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 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. Importantly, Air Transport Services Group, Inc. (NASDAQ:ATSG) does carry debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.

When Is Debt A Problem?

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. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. However, a more frequent (but still costly) occurrence is where a company must issue shares at bargain-basement prices, permanently diluting shareholders, just to shore up its balance sheet. Of course, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.

What Is Air Transport Services Group's Net Debt?

The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Air Transport Services Group had debt of US$1.41b at the end of June 2021, a reduction from US$1.52b over a year. However, it does have US$84.9m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about US$1.32b.

debt-equity-history-analysisNasdaqGS:ATSG Debt to Equity History October 23rd 2021

How Strong Is Air Transport Services Group's Balance Sheet?

Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Air Transport Services Group had liabilities of US$335.9m due within 12 months and liabilities of US$1.76b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$84.9m as well as receivables valued at US$176.1m due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$1.84b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

Given this deficit is actually higher than the company's market capitalization of US$1.78b, we think shareholders really should watch Air Transport Services Group'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.

We measure a company's debt load relative to its earnings power by looking at its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and by calculating how easily its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) cover its interest expense (interest cover). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.

Air Transport Services Group has a debt to EBITDA ratio of 2.7 and its EBIT covered its interest expense 3.3 times. Taken together this implies that, while we wouldn't want to see debt levels rise, we think it can handle its current leverage. Even more troubling is the fact that Air Transport Services Group actually let its EBIT decrease by 5.1% over the last year. If that earnings trend continues the company will face an uphill battle to pay off its debt. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Air Transport Services Group'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, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. Considering the last three years, Air Transport Services Group actually recorded a cash outflow, overall. Debt is usually more expensive, and almost always more risky in the hands of a company with negative free cash flow. Shareholders ought to hope for an improvement.

Our View

On the face of it, Air Transport Services Group's level of total liabilities 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. Having said that, its ability handle its debt, based on its EBITDA, isn't such a worry. We're quite clear that we consider Air Transport Services Group to be really rather risky, as a result of its balance sheet health. So we're almost as wary of this stock as a hungry kitten is about falling into its owner's fish pond: once bitten, twice shy, as they say. 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. Be aware that Air Transport Services Group is showing 4 warning signs in our investment analysis , and 1 of those is a bit concerning...

If you're interested in investing in businesses that can grow profits without the burden of debt, then check out this free list of growing businesses that have net cash on the balance sheet.

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 views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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