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We Think Williams Companies (NYSE:WMB) Is Taking Some Risk With Its Debt

Simply Wall St

Some say volatility, rather than debt, is the best way to think about risk as an investor, but Warren Buffett famously said that '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. As with many other companies The Williams Companies, Inc. (NYSE:WMB) makes use of debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?

When Is Debt Dangerous?

Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.

See our latest analysis for Williams Companies

What Is Williams Companies's Net Debt?

The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at June 2019 Williams Companies had debt of US$22.3b, up from US$21.3b in one year. On the flip side, it has US$806.0m in cash leading to net debt of about US$21.5b.

NYSE:WMB Historical Debt, August 26th 2019

How Healthy Is Williams Companies's Balance Sheet?

Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Williams Companies had liabilities of US$3.39b due within 12 months and liabilities of US$26.0b due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$806.0m and US$879.0m worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities total US$27.7b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

When you consider that this deficiency exceeds the company's huge US$27.7b market capitalization, you might well be inclined to review the balance sheet, just like one might study a new partner's social media. 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.

Williams Companies shareholders face the double whammy of a high net debt to EBITDA ratio (5.6), and fairly weak interest coverage, since EBIT is just 2.2 times the interest expense. This means we'd consider it to have a heavy debt load. However, one redeeming factor is that Williams Companies grew its EBIT at 19% over the last 12 months, boosting its ability to handle its debt. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Williams Companies'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. Looking at the most recent three years, Williams Companies recorded free cash flow of 48% of its EBIT, which is weaker than we'd expect. That's not great, when it comes to paying down debt.

Our View

On the face of it, Williams Companies's interest cover left us tentative about the stock, and its net debt to EBITDA was no more enticing than the one empty restaurant on the busiest night of the year. But on the bright side, its EBIT growth rate is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. Once we consider all the factors above, together, it seems to us that Williams Companies'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. Given our hesitation about the stock, it would be good to know if Williams Companies insiders have sold any shares recently. You click here to find out if insiders have sold recently.

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.