Taking on lots of debt isn't always a bad thing. Sometimes, debt-laden companies can provide solid returns. Let's see how.

Generally, the cost of raising debt is cheaper than the cost of raising equity. Raising debt against equity has two observable consequences -- first, the equity that shareholders value doesn't get diluted, and second, it results in a higher interest expense. As interest is charged before tax, a higher interest rate provides a tax shield, thus resulting in higher profits. Higher profits coupled with a lower share count translate into higher earnings per share.

However, when assuming debt, a company should see whether the returns from investing the money are higher than the cost of the debt itself. If not, the company is headed for some serious trouble.

It's prudent for investors to see whether a company is strongly positioned to handle the debt it has taken on. Can it meet its short-term liabilities and interest payments? Let's look at three simple metrics to help us understand debt positions.

  • The debt-to-equity ratio tells us what fraction of the debt as opposed to equity a company uses to help fund its assets.
  • The interest coverage ratio is a way of measuring how easily a company can pay off the interest expenses on its outstanding debt.
  • The current ratio tells us what portion of a company's short-term assets is available to finance its short-term liabilities.

Let's examine the debt situation at Kinder Morgan Energy Partners (NYSE: KMP) and compare it with its peers.


Debt-Equity Ratio

Interest Coverage

Current Ratio

Kinder Morgan Energy Partners 176.3% 3.2 times 0.5 times
Magellan Midstream Partners (NYSE: MMP) 145.9% 4.7 times 2.0 times
Enterprise Products Partners (NYSE: EPD) 133.3% 3.4 times 0.8 times
Williams Companies (NYSE: WMB) 101.4% 3.4 times 1.2 times

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Compared to its peers, Kinder Morgan has a high debt-equity ratio of 176.3%. The company plans to expand operations to increase natural gas output. It recently acquired 50% of a natural gas gathering system with Petrohawk, and also the Fayetteville Express pipeline. These acquisitions helped drive up revenues in its latest quarter.

Kinder Morgan's current ratio doesn't make for good reading and is well below its peers'. However, the company has a decent interest coverage ratio of 3.2 times, which means that it is bringing in enough green to comfortably pay off its interest expenses. Also, I expect the company's current expansion plans to reap benefits going ahead. Thus, the low current ratio should not be a worry. 

To add to this, Kinder Morgan Energy's parent, Kinder Morgan (NYSE: KMI), is all set to acquire pipeline operator El Paso (NYSE: EP). This deal would make Kinder Morgan the largest pipeline operator in the U.S., controlling nearly 67,000 miles of pipelines. With natural gas consumption in the U.S. expected to rise, Kinder Morgan's steps are in the right direction and will help it take advantage of the expected demand spike.

To keep a close eye on Kinder Morgan Energy, click here to add it to your stock watchlist.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.