Duke Energy (NYSE:DUK) Use Of Debt Could Be Considered Risky

Duke Energy Corporation -1.02%

Duke Energy Corporation

DUK

101.32

-1.02%

The external fund manager backed by Berkshire Hathaway's Charlie Munger, Li Lu, makes no bones about it when he says 'The biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a permanent loss of capital.' 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, Duke Energy Corporation (NYSE:DUK) does carry debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?

When Is Debt Dangerous?

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. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well - and to its own advantage. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.

See our latest analysis for Duke Energy

What Is Duke Energy's Net Debt?

You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that as of December 2023 Duke Energy had US$78.9b of debt, an increase on US$72.9b, over one year. And it doesn't have much cash, so its net debt is about the same.

debt-equity-history-analysis
NYSE:DUK Debt to Equity History April 29th 2024

How Healthy Is Duke Energy's Balance Sheet?

We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Duke Energy had liabilities of US$17.3b falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$109.4b due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$253.0m and US$4.13b worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$122.3b.

The deficiency here weighs heavily on the US$75.4b 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 definitely think shareholders need to watch this one closely. At the end of the day, Duke Energy would probably need a major re-capitalization if its creditors were to demand repayment.

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.

Duke Energy shareholders face the double whammy of a high net debt to EBITDA ratio (5.9), and fairly weak interest coverage, since EBIT is just 2.4 times the interest expense. This means we'd consider it to have a heavy debt load. Fortunately, Duke Energy grew its EBIT by 9.8% in the last year, slowly shrinking its debt relative to earnings. 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 Duke Energy 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, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. During the last three years, Duke Energy burned a lot of cash. 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

To be frank both Duke Energy's conversion of EBIT to free cash flow and its track record of staying on top of its total liabilities make us rather uncomfortable with its debt levels. But on the bright side, its EBIT growth rate is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. We should also note that Electric Utilities industry companies like Duke Energy commonly do use debt without problems. Taking into account all the aforementioned factors, it looks like Duke Energy has too much debt. That sort of riskiness is ok for some, but it certainly doesn't float our boat. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. Be aware that Duke Energy is showing 2 warning signs in our investment analysis , and 1 of those is significant...

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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