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.' 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 note that Cleanaway Waste Management Limited (ASX:CWY) does have debt on its balance sheet. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
What Risk Does Debt Bring?
Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. 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. Of course, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
How Much Debt Does Cleanaway Waste Management Carry?
As you can see below, Cleanaway Waste Management had AU$605.4m of debt, at June 2021, which is about the same as the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. However, it does have AU$69.4m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about AU$536.0m.
A Look At Cleanaway Waste Management's Liabilities
According to the last reported balance sheet, Cleanaway Waste Management had liabilities of AU$564.0m due within 12 months, and liabilities of AU$1.45b due beyond 12 months. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of AU$69.4m as well as receivables valued at AU$376.1m due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by AU$1.57b.
While this might seem like a lot, it is not so bad since Cleanaway Waste Management has a market capitalization of AU$5.53b, and so it could probably strengthen its balance sheet by raising capital if it needed to. But it's clear that we should definitely closely examine whether it can manage its debt without dilution.
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). 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).
While Cleanaway Waste Management's low debt to EBITDA ratio of 1.2 suggests only modest use of debt, the fact that EBIT only covered the interest expense by 2.7 times last year does give us pause. But the interest payments are certainly sufficient to have us thinking about how affordable its debt is. We note that Cleanaway Waste Management grew its EBIT by 29% in the last year, and that should make it easier to pay down debt, going forward. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Cleanaway Waste Management can strengthen its balance sheet over time. So if you want to see what the professionals think, you might find this free report on analyst profit forecasts to be interesting.
Finally, a company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. During the last three years, Cleanaway Waste Management generated free cash flow amounting to a very robust 81% of its EBIT, more than we'd expect. That puts it in a very strong position to pay down debt.
Cleanaway Waste Management's conversion of EBIT to free cash flow suggests it can handle its debt as easily as Cristiano Ronaldo could score a goal against an under 14's goalkeeper. But we must concede we find its interest cover has the opposite effect. When we consider the range of factors above, it looks like Cleanaway Waste Management is pretty sensible with its use of debt. That means they are taking on a bit more risk, in the hope of boosting shareholder returns. We'd be motivated to research the stock further if we found out that Cleanaway Waste Management insiders have bought shares recently. If you would too, then you're in luck, since today we're sharing our list of reported insider transactions for free.
If, after all that, you're more interested in a fast growing company with a rock-solid balance sheet, then check out our list of net cash growth stocks without delay.
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.
Have feedback on this article? Concerned about the content? Get in touch with us directly. Alternatively, email editorial-team (at) simplywallst.com.