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Is Clean Harbors (NYSE:CLH) Using Too Much Debt?

Simply Wall St

Warren Buffett famously said, 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' 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. As with many other companies Clean Harbors, Inc. (NYSE:CLH) makes use of debt. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?

Why Does Debt Bring Risk?

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. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. 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. Of course, the upside of debt is that it often represents cheap capital, especially when it replaces dilution in a company with the ability to reinvest 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.

See our latest analysis for Clean Harbors

What Is Clean Harbors's Debt?

As you can see below, Clean Harbors had US$1.57b of debt, at June 2019, which is about the same the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. However, it also had US$259.7m in cash, and so its net debt is US$1.31b.

NYSE:CLH Historical Debt, August 23rd 2019

How Strong Is Clean Harbors's Balance Sheet?

According to the last reported balance sheet, Clean Harbors had liabilities of US$633.7m due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$2.11b due beyond 12 months. Offsetting this, it had US$259.7m in cash and US$685.1m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$1.80b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

This deficit isn't so bad because Clean Harbors is worth US$4.20b, and thus could probably raise enough capital to shore up its balance sheet, if the need arose. However, it is still worthwhile taking a close look at its ability to pay off debt.

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.

While we wouldn't worry about Clean Harbors's net debt to EBITDA ratio of 2.6, we think its super-low interest cover of 2.5 times is a sign of high leverage. It seems that the business incurs large depreciation and amortisation charges, so maybe its debt load is heavier than it would first appear, since EBITDA is arguably a generous measure of earnings. It seems clear that the cost of borrowing money is negatively impacting returns for shareholders, of late. On a lighter note, we note that Clean Harbors grew its EBIT by 28% in the last year. If sustained, this growth should make that debt evaporate like a scarce drinking water during an unnaturally hot summer. 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 Clean Harbors can strengthen its balance sheet over time. So if you're focused on the future you can check out this free report showing analyst profit forecasts.

Finally, a company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, Clean Harbors recorded free cash flow worth 73% 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.

Our View

Happily, Clean Harbors's impressive EBIT growth rate implies it has the upper hand on its debt. But the stark truth is that we are concerned by its interest cover. All these things considered, it appears that Clean Harbors can comfortably handle its current debt levels. Of course, while this leverage can enhance returns on equity, it does bring more risk, so it's worth keeping an eye on this one. We'd be motivated to research the stock further if we found out that Clean Harbors 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.

If you're interested in investing in businesses that can grow profits without the burden of debt, then check out this free list of growing businesses that have net cash on the balance sheet.

We aim to bring you long-term focused research analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material.

If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at editorial-team@simplywallst.com. 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. Simply Wall St has no position in the stocks mentioned. Thank you for reading.