Here’s Why Centene (NYSE:CNC) Can Manage Its Debt Responsibly

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. We can see that Centene Corporation (NYSE:CNC) does use debt in its business. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?

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. 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.

What Is Centene’s Net Debt?

The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Centene had US$16.6b in debt in June 2021; about the same as the year before. However, it also had US$12.6b in cash, and so its net debt is US$4.03b.

NYSE:CNC Debt to Equity History September 6th 2021

How Strong Is Centene’s Balance Sheet?

The latest balance sheet data shows that Centene had liabilities of US$23.6b due within a year, and liabilities of US$21.8b falling due after that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$12.6b and US$11.2b worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$21.6b.

Centene has a very large market capitalization of US$37.5b, so it could very likely raise cash to ameliorate its balance sheet, if the need arose. However, it is still worthwhile taking a close look at its ability to pay off debt.

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). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.

Looking at its net debt to EBITDA of 0.84 and interest cover of 5.0 times, it seems to us that Centene is probably using debt in a pretty reasonable way. So we’d recommend keeping a close eye on the impact financing costs are having on the business. Unfortunately, Centene saw its EBIT slide 9.2% in the last twelve months. If earnings continue on that decline then managing that debt will be difficult like delivering hot soup on a unicycle. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Centene’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.

But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, Centene recorded free cash flow worth 64% 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

Both Centene’s ability to handle its debt, based on its EBITDA, and its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow gave us comfort that it can handle its debt. On the other hand, its EBIT growth rate makes us a little less comfortable about its debt. It’s also worth noting that Centene is in the Healthcare industry, which is often considered to be quite defensive. Looking at all this data makes us feel a little cautious about Centene’s debt levels. While debt does have its upside in higher potential returns, we think shareholders should definitely consider how debt levels might make the stock more risky. 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. Case in point: We’ve spotted 3 warning signs for Centene you should be aware of.

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.

This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. We provide commentary based on historical data and analyst forecasts only using an unbiased methodology and our articles are not intended to be financial advice. 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.

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