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Is Waste Connections (NYSE:WCN) A Risky Investment?

Simply Wall St

David Iben put it well when he said, 'Volatility is not a risk we care about. What we care about is avoiding the permanent loss of capital.' 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. Importantly, Waste Connections, Inc. (NYSE:WCN) does carry debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?

Why Does Debt Bring Risk?

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. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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. 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.

Check out our latest analysis for Waste Connections

What Is Waste Connections's Net Debt?

The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at June 2019 Waste Connections had debt of US$4.14b, up from US$3.81b in one year. However, it does have US$214.0m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about US$3.93b.

NYSE:WCN Historical Debt, September 13th 2019

How Healthy Is Waste Connections's Balance Sheet?

The latest balance sheet data shows that Waste Connections had liabilities of US$942.9m due within a year, and liabilities of US$5.50b falling due after that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$214.0m and US$663.9m worth of receivables due within a year. So it has liabilities totalling US$5.56b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.

This deficit isn't so bad because Waste Connections is worth a massive US$23.5b, and thus could probably raise enough capital to shore up its balance sheet, if the need arose. 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). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.

Waste Connections has net debt worth 2.4 times EBITDA, which isn't too much, but its interest cover looks a bit on the low side, with EBIT at only 6.8 times the interest expense. While these numbers do not alarm us, it's worth noting that the cost of the company's debt is having a real impact. Waste Connections grew its EBIT by 5.4% in the last year. That's far from incredible but it is a good thing, when it comes to paying off debt. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Waste Connections 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.

Finally, a company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. Over the last three years, Waste Connections recorded free cash flow worth a fulsome 96% 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

The good news is that Waste Connections's demonstrated ability to convert EBIT to free cash flow delights us like a fluffy puppy does a toddler. But truth be told we feel its net debt to EBITDA does undermine this impression a bit. Looking at all the aforementioned factors together, it strikes us that Waste Connections can handle its debt fairly comfortably. On the plus side, this leverage can boost shareholder returns, but the potential downside is more risk of loss, so it's worth monitoring the balance sheet. We'd be motivated to research the stock further if we found out that Waste Connections 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, after all that, you're more interested in a fast growing company with a rock-solid balance sheet, then check out our list of net cash growth stocks without delay.

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.