The Undeniable Reason Behind Valeant Pharmaceuticals Inc.'s 43% Rally in November

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What happened

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Shares of Valeant Pharmaceuticals (NYSE: VRX), an embattled drugmaker that had primarily grown by acquisitions and drug-price hikes in recent years, galloped higher by 43% in November, according to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence. While the stock is still more than 90% off its all-time high, the monthly return was one of the best shareholders have seen in recent years -- and they owe it all to the company's encouraging third-quarter operating results.

So what

For the quarter, Valeant reported $2.22 billion in sales, down about 10% from the previous year, as well as $367 million in adjusted net income, down from $510 million in the prior-year period. Scratching the surface, these headline figures don't look very appetizing. However, the underlying details were what excited investors.

For starters, the company's two core businesses delivered steady organic growth. Excluding the impact of currency fluctuations and divestitures, its Bausch & Lomb segment grew by a healthy 6%, which is right on target for what management predicted earlier this year. Meanwhile, Salix Pharmaceuticals saw sales growth of 3%, which jumped up to 6% when looked at on an organic basis. Increased sales of Xifaxan and Apriso led the charge higher.

Valeant is also making substantial headway with regard to lowering its debt. CEO Joe Papa had initially targeted $5 billion in aggregate debt reduction by February 2018, but the company has chopped off about $6 billion since the first quarter of 2016. Divestments of noncore assets have played a big role in this reduction, with free cash flow funneled from its operations assisting as well.

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We also witnessed Valeant hold firm on its full-year EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization) forecast of $3.6 billion to $3.75 billion. While most investors tend to focus on profitability, Valeant's lenders pay closer attention to its EBITDA, since this is what's tied to its debt covenants. Despite divesting assets, Valeant's EBITDA hasn't been cut, which is a positive sign. 

Now what

On the other hand, the company's progress in the third quarter still amounts to baby steps compared to the long walk that lies ahead.

To begin with, while we're seeing strength in its core businesses, there's been ongoing weakness in Valeant's other operating segments. U.S. diversified product sales were an absolute mess on a constant currency basis in the third quarter, with sales down 29%. Neuro and Generics tumbled by 29% and 32%, respectively, somewhat hurt by divestitures but also hampered by organic declines.

Second, Papa has been pretty clear that he'd like to see the company pay down its debt from here on out without any additional divestitures. Considering how nearly all of the company's cash flow has been funneled to servicing its debt (i.e., paying interest and fees) as a result of numerous restructurings, it could be difficult to make any meaningful headway on its remaining debt (which totaled more than $27 billion at the end of Q3).

Valeant's EBITDA-to-interest coverage ratio also remains notoriously low, even if it has improved a bit from its trough. With $951 million in EBITDA and $459 million in interest expenses in the third quarter, this ratio only stands at 2.07-to-1. While there's no concrete figure that suggests a healthy company, this ratio used to be well above 3-to-1 back in 2015.

Valeant's path to redemption has a long way to go, and following a major move higher in November, I'm perfectly fine suggesting that investors remain on the sidelines.

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Sean Williams has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Valeant Pharmaceuticals. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.