Legendary fund manager Li Lu (who Charlie Munger backed) once said, 'The biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a permanent loss of capital.' When we think about how risky a company is, we always like to look at its use of debt, since debt overload can lead to ruin. We can see that Waste Management, Inc. (NYSE:WM) does use debt in its business. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
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. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. While that is not too common, we often do see indebted companies permanently diluting shareholders because lenders force them to raise capital at a distressed price. By replacing dilution, though, debt can be an extremely good tool for businesses that need capital to invest in growth at high rates of return. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
What Is Waste Management's Net Debt?
As you can see below, at the end of September 2021, Waste Management had US$12.5b of debt, up from US$9.77b a year ago. Click the image for more detail. Net debt is about the same, since the it doesn't have much cash.
How Healthy Is Waste Management's Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Waste Management had liabilities of US$4.10b falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$17.6b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had US$116.0m in cash and US$2.67b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$18.9b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
Waste Management has a very large market capitalization of US$65.5b, so it could very likely raise cash to ameliorate its balance sheet, if the need arose. However, it is still worthwhile taking a close look at its ability to pay off debt.
In order to size up a company's debt relative to its earnings, we calculate its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) divided by its interest expense (its interest cover). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.
Waste Management has net debt to EBITDA of 2.5 suggesting it uses a fair bit of leverage to boost returns. But the high interest coverage of 7.9 suggests it can easily service that debt. One way Waste Management could vanquish its debt would be if it stops borrowing more but continues to grow EBIT at around 18%, as it did over the last year. 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 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.
But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, Waste Management recorded free cash flow worth 78% of its EBIT, which is around normal, given free cash flow excludes interest and tax. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.
The good news is that Waste Management's demonstrated ability to convert EBIT to free cash flow delights us like a fluffy puppy does a toddler. But truth be told we feel its net debt to EBITDA does undermine this impression a bit. When we consider the range of factors above, it looks like Waste Management is pretty sensible with its use of debt. While that brings some risk, it can also enhance returns for shareholders. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet - far from it. Be aware that Waste Management is showing 1 warning sign in our investment analysis , you should know about...
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.
What are the risks and opportunities for Waste Management?
Trading at 10.5% below our estimate of its fair value
Earnings are forecast to grow 9.92% per year
Earnings grew by 2.9% over the past year
Significant insider selling over the past 3 months
Has a high level of debt
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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.
Waste Management, Inc., through its subsidiaries, engages in the provision of environmental solutions to residential, commercial, industrial, and municipal customers in the United States and Canada.
Established dividend payer and fair value.