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 can see that Waste Management, Inc. (NYSE:WM) does use debt in its business. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
What Risk Does Debt Bring?
Generally speaking, debt only becomes a real problem when a company can't easily pay it off, either by raising capital or with its own cash flow. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. 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 step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
What Is Waste Management's Debt?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that Waste Management had US$9.66b of debt in September 2020, down from US$13.0b, one year before. However, it does have US$703.0m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about US$8.95b.
How Healthy Is Waste Management's Balance Sheet?
According to the last reported balance sheet, Waste Management had liabilities of US$2.81b due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$14.8b due beyond 12 months. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$703.0m as well as receivables valued at US$2.22b due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$14.7b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
While this might seem like a lot, it is not so bad since Waste Management has a huge market capitalization of US$49.2b, 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 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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
Waste Management's net debt is sitting at a very reasonable 2.1 times its EBITDA, while its EBIT covered its interest expense just 5.8 times last year. While these numbers do not alarm us, it's worth noting that the cost of the company's debt is having a real impact. Unfortunately, Waste Management saw its EBIT slide 9.0% in the last twelve months. If that earnings trend continues then its debt load will grow heavy like the heart of a polar bear watching its sole cub. 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 the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, Waste Management recorded free cash flow worth 70% 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.
When it comes to the balance sheet, the standout positive for Waste Management was the fact that it seems able to convert EBIT to free cash flow confidently. However, our other observations weren't so heartening. For example, its EBIT growth rate makes us a little nervous about its debt. When we consider all the factors mentioned above, we do feel a bit cautious about Waste Management's use of debt. While debt does have its upside in higher potential returns, we think shareholders should definitely consider how debt levels might make the stock more risky. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. Case in point: We've spotted 2 warning signs for Waste Management you should be aware of.
When all is said and done, sometimes its easier to focus on companies that don't even need debt. Readers can access a list of growth stocks with zero net debt 100% free, right now.
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