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Here's Why William Lyon Homes (NYSE:WLH) Is Weighed Down By Its Debt Load

Simply Wall St

Warren Buffett famously said, 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' 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. Importantly, William Lyon Homes (NYSE:WLH) does carry debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?

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. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. However, a more frequent (but still costly) occurrence is where a company must issue shares at bargain-basement prices, permanently diluting shareholders, just to shore up its balance sheet. Of course, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.

See our latest analysis for William Lyon Homes

How Much Debt Does William Lyon Homes Carry?

The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that William Lyon Homes had US$1.41b in debt in June 2019; about the same as the year before. However, because it has a cash reserve of US$43.1m, its net debt is less, at about US$1.37b.

NYSE:WLH Historical Debt, October 4th 2019

How Healthy Is William Lyon Homes's Balance Sheet?

Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that William Lyon Homes had liabilities of US$520.2m due within 12 months and liabilities of US$1.40b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$43.1m as well as receivables valued at US$16.1m due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$1.86b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

The deficiency here weighs heavily on the US$754.8m company itself, as if a child were struggling under the weight of an enormous back-pack full of books, his sports gear, and a trumpet." So we definitely think shareholders need to watch this one closely. After all, William Lyon Homes would likely require a major re-capitalisation if it had to pay its creditors today.

We measure a company's debt load relative to its earnings power by looking at its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and by calculating how easily its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) cover its interest expense (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).

As it happens William Lyon Homes has a fairly concerning net debt to EBITDA ratio of 10.3 but very strong interest coverage of 1k. This means that unless the company has access to very cheap debt, that interest expense will likely grow in the future. Unfortunately, William Lyon Homes's EBIT flopped 19% over the last four quarters. If that sort of decline is not arrested, then the managing its debt will be harder than selling broccoli flavoured ice-cream for a premium. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine William Lyon Homes's ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. So if you're focused on the future you can check out this free report showing analyst profit forecasts.

But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, William Lyon Homes recorded free cash flow worth 58% 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.

Our View

On the face of it, William Lyon Homes's net debt to EBITDA 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 at least it's pretty decent at covering its interest expense with its EBIT; that's encouraging. Overall, it seems to us that William Lyon Homes's balance sheet is really quite a risk to the business. For this reason we're pretty cautious about the stock, and we think shareholders should keep a close eye on its liquidity. Given our concerns about William Lyon Homes's debt levels, it seems only prudent to check if insiders have been ditching the stock.

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.

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.