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Is Atara Biotherapeutics (NASDAQ:ATRA) In A Good Position To Invest In Growth?

Simply Wall St

We can readily understand why investors are attracted to unprofitable companies. For example, although Amazon.com made losses for many years after listing, if you had bought and held the shares since 1999, you would have made a fortune. Having said that, unprofitable companies are risky because they could potentially burn through all their cash and become distressed.

Given this risk, we thought we'd take a look at whether Atara Biotherapeutics (NASDAQ:ATRA) shareholders should be worried about its cash burn. In this report, we will consider the company's annual negative free cash flow, henceforth referring to it as the 'cash burn'. First, we'll determine its cash runway by comparing its cash burn with its cash reserves.

View our latest analysis for Atara Biotherapeutics

Does Atara Biotherapeutics Have A Long Cash Runway?

A cash runway is defined as the length of time it would take a company to run out of money if it kept spending at its current rate of cash burn. As at June 2019, Atara Biotherapeutics had cash of US$190m and no debt. In the last year, its cash burn was US$241m. That means it had a cash runway of around 9 months as of June 2019. To be frank, this kind of short runway puts us on edge, as it indicates the company must reduce its cash burn significantly, or else raise cash imminently. Depicted below, you can see how its cash holdings have changed over time.

NasdaqGS:ATRA Historical Debt, September 26th 2019

How Is Atara Biotherapeutics's Cash Burn Changing Over Time?

Atara Biotherapeutics didn't record any revenue over the last year, indicating that it's an early stage company still developing its business. So while we can't look to sales to understand growth, we can look at how the cash burn is changing to understand how expenditure is trending over time. Over the last year its cash burn actually increased by 48%, which suggests that management are increasing investment in future growth, but not too quickly. However, the company's true cash runway will therefore be shorter than suggested above, if spending continues to increase. Clearly, however, the crucial factor is whether the company will grow its business going forward. For that reason, it makes a lot of sense to take a look at our analyst forecasts for the company.

Can Atara Biotherapeutics Raise More Cash Easily?

Given its cash burn trajectory, Atara Biotherapeutics shareholders should already be thinking about how easy it might be for it to raise further cash in the future. Companies can raise capital through either debt or equity. One of the main advantages held by publicly listed companies is that they can sell shares to investors to raise cash to fund growth. We can compare a company's cash burn to its market capitalisation to get a sense for how many new shares a company would have to issue to fund one year's operations.

Atara Biotherapeutics has a market capitalisation of US$792m and burnt through US$241m last year, which is 30% of the company's market value. That's fairly notable cash burn, so if the company had to sell shares to cover the cost of another year's operations, shareholders would suffer some costly dilution.

So, Should We Worry About Atara Biotherapeutics's Cash Burn?

Atara Biotherapeutics is not in a great position when it comes to its cash burn situation. While its cash burn relative to its market cap wasn't too bad, its cash runway does leave us rather nervous. After looking at that range of measures, we think shareholders should be extremely attentive to how the company is using its cash, as the cash burn makes us uncomfortable. While it's important to consider hard data like the metrics discussed above, many investors would also be interested to note that Atara Biotherapeutics insiders have been trading shares in the company. Click here to find out if they have been buying or selling.

Of course Atara Biotherapeutics may not be the best stock to buy. So you may wish to see this free collection of companies boasting high return on equity, or this list of stocks that insiders are buying.

We aim to bring you long-term focused research analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material.

If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at editorial-team@simplywallst.com. This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. It does not constitute a recommendation to buy or sell any stock, and does not take account of your objectives, or your financial situation. Simply Wall St has no position in the stocks mentioned. Thank you for reading.