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Western Digital (NASDAQ:WDC) Has A Somewhat Strained Balance Sheet

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. We can see that Western Digital Corporation (NASDAQ:WDC) does use debt in its business. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?

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. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. 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.

What Is Western Digital's Net Debt?

The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Western Digital had debt of US$9.02b at the end of April 2021, a reduction from US$9.63b over a year. However, because it has a cash reserve of US$2.73b, its net debt is less, at about US$6.29b.

debt-equity-history-analysisNasdaqGS:WDC Debt to Equity History July 6th 2021

How Healthy Is Western Digital's Balance Sheet?

The latest balance sheet data shows that Western Digital had liabilities of US$4.50b due within a year, and liabilities of US$11.0b falling due after that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$2.73b and US$1.91b worth of receivables due within a year. So it has liabilities totalling US$10.8b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.

This deficit isn't so bad because Western Digital is worth a massive US$21.5b, and thus could probably raise enough capital to shore up its balance sheet, if the need arose. But we definitely want to keep our eyes open to indications that its debt is bringing too much risk.

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 Western Digital's debt to EBITDA ratio (3.1) suggests that it uses some debt, its interest cover is very weak, at 2.2, suggesting 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. So shareholders should probably be aware that interest expenses appear to have really impacted the business lately. One redeeming factor for Western Digital is that it turned last year's EBIT loss into a gain of US$722m, over the last twelve months. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Western Digital'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 it's worth checking how much of the earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) is backed by free cash flow. In the last year, Western Digital created free cash flow amounting to 5.7% of its EBIT, an uninspiring performance. That limp level of cash conversion undermines its ability to manage and pay down debt.

Our View

To be frank both Western Digital's conversion of EBIT to free cash flow and its track record of covering its interest expense with its EBIT make us rather uncomfortable with its debt levels. But at least its EBIT growth rate is not so bad. Looking at the balance sheet and taking into account all these factors, we do believe that debt is making Western Digital stock 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. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. We've identified 2 warning signs with Western Digital (at least 1 which can't be ignored) , and understanding them should be part of your investment process.

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.

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. We aim to bring you long-term focused analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material. Simply Wall St has no position in any stocks mentioned.

Have feedback on this article? Concerned about the content? Get in touch with us directly. Alternatively, email editorial-team (at) simplywallst.com.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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