Stock Analysis

WestRock (NYSE:WRK) Takes On Some Risk With Its Use Of Debt

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NYSE:WRK
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Warren Buffett famously said, 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' 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 note that WestRock Company (NYSE:WRK) does have debt on its balance sheet. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?

When Is Debt Dangerous?

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. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. 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, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.

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What Is WestRock's Debt?

The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that WestRock had debt of US$8.67b at the end of March 2021, a reduction from US$10.6b over a year. On the flip side, it has US$334.0m in cash leading to net debt of about US$8.34b.

debt-equity-history-analysis
NYSE:WRK Debt to Equity History August 2nd 2021

How Healthy Is WestRock's Balance Sheet?

We can see from the most recent balance sheet that WestRock had liabilities of US$3.55b falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$14.3b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$334.0m as well as receivables valued at US$2.61b due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$15.0b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.

Given this deficit is actually higher than the company's massive market capitalization of US$13.1b, we think shareholders really should watch WestRock's debt levels, like a parent watching their child ride a bike for the first time. 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). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.

WestRock has a debt to EBITDA ratio of 3.1 and its EBIT covered its interest expense 3.2 times. Taken together this implies that, while we wouldn't want to see debt levels rise, we think it can handle its current leverage. Investors should also be troubled by the fact that WestRock saw its EBIT drop by 18% over the last twelve months. If things keep going like that, handling the debt will about as easy as bundling an angry house cat into its travel box. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. 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 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. Over the last three years, WestRock recorded free cash flow worth a fulsome 81% of its EBIT, which is stronger than we'd usually expect. That puts it in a very strong position to pay down debt.

Our View

We'd go so far as to say WestRock's EBIT growth rate was disappointing. But at least it's pretty decent at converting EBIT to free cash flow; that's encouraging. Overall, we think it's fair to say that WestRock has enough debt that there are some real risks around the balance sheet. If everything goes well that may pay off but the downside of this debt is a greater risk of permanent losses. 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. Be aware that WestRock is showing 4 warning signs in our investment analysis , you should know about...

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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What are the risks and opportunities for WestRock?

WestRock Company, together with its subsidiaries, provides fiber-based paper and packaging solutions in North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia.

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Rewards

  • Trading at 60% below our estimate of its fair value

  • Earnings are forecast to grow 6.1% per year

  • Earnings grew by 12.7% over the past year

Risks

  • Significant insider selling over the past 3 months

  • Large one-off items impacting financial results

  • Has a high level of debt

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