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.' So it might be obvious that you need to consider debt, when you think about how risky any given stock is, because too much debt can sink a company. We note that WestRock Company (NYSE:WRK) does have debt on its balance sheet. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
What Risk Does Debt Bring?
Debt is a tool to help businesses grow, but if a business is incapable of paying off its lenders, then it exists at their mercy. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. However, a more usual (but still expensive) situation is where a company must dilute shareholders at a cheap share price simply to get debt under control. Of course, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
What Is WestRock's Debt?
As you can see below, WestRock had US$8.67b of debt at December 2020, down from US$9.93b a year prior. However, it also had US$253.8m in cash, and so its net debt is US$8.41b.
How Strong Is WestRock's Balance Sheet?
According to the last reported balance sheet, WestRock had liabilities of US$3.05b due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$14.8b due beyond 12 months. Offsetting this, it had US$253.8m in cash and US$2.22b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$15.4b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
When you consider that this deficiency exceeds the company's huge US$13.9b market capitalization, you might well be inclined to review the balance sheet intently. In the scenario where the company had to clean up its balance sheet quickly, it seems likely shareholders would suffer extensive dilution.
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). 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).
WestRock's debt is 3.1 times its EBITDA, and its EBIT cover its interest expense 3.1 times over. Taken together this implies that, while we wouldn't want to see debt levels rise, we think it can handle its current leverage. Another concern for investors might be that WestRock's EBIT fell 12% in the last year. If things keep going like that, handling the debt will about as easy as bundling an angry house cat into its travel box. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine WestRock's ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. 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 business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. Over the last three years, WestRock recorded free cash flow worth a fulsome 80% of its EBIT, which is stronger than we'd usually expect. That positions it well to pay down debt if desirable to do so.
On the face of it, WestRock's EBIT growth rate left us tentative about the stock, and its level of total liabilities was no more enticing than the one empty restaurant on the busiest night of the year. But on the bright side, its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. Once we consider all the factors above, together, it seems to us that WestRock's debt is making it a bit risky. Some people like that sort of risk, but we're mindful of the potential pitfalls, so we'd probably prefer it carry less debt. 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. For example, we've discovered 3 warning signs for WestRock (1 is potentially serious!) that you should be aware of before investing here.
Of course, if you're the type of investor who prefers buying stocks without the burden of debt, then don't hesitate to discover our exclusive list of net cash growth stocks, today.
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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. 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.
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