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.' It's only natural to consider a company's balance sheet when you examine how risky it is, since debt is often involved when a business collapses. As with many other companies Waste Management, Inc. (NYSE:WM) makes use of debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
Why Does Debt Bring Risk?
Debt and other liabilities become risky for a business when it cannot easily fulfill those obligations, either with free cash flow or by raising capital at an attractive price. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. 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. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well - and to its own advantage. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
What Is Waste Management's Debt?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at June 2019 Waste Management had debt of US$12.7b, up from US$9.80b in one year. However, it also had US$2.25b in cash, and so its net debt is US$10.5b.
How Healthy Is Waste Management's Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Waste Management had liabilities of US$2.85b falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$16.7b due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$2.25b and US$2.26b worth of receivables due within a year. So it has liabilities totalling US$15.0b 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$50.3b, 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.
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).
Waste Management's net debt of 2.4 times EBITDA suggests graceful use of debt. And the fact that its trailing twelve months of EBIT was 7.2 times its interest expenses harmonizes with that theme. We saw Waste Management grow its EBIT by 4.6% in the last twelve months. That's far from incredible but it is a good thing, when it comes to paying off debt. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. 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 it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, Waste Management recorded free cash flow worth 65% of its EBIT, which is around normal, given free cash flow excludes interest and tax. This free cash flow puts the company in a good position to pay down debt, when appropriate.
On our analysis Waste Management's conversion of EBIT to free cash flow should signal that it won't have too much trouble with its debt. But the other factors we noted above weren't so encouraging. For example, its net debt to EBITDA makes us a little nervous about its debt. When we consider all the elements mentioned above, it seems to us that Waste Management is managing its debt quite well. Having said that, the load is sufficiently heavy that we would recommend any shareholders keep a close eye on it. We'd be motivated to research the stock further if we found out that 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.
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.
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