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The buzz surrounding Valeant Pharmaceuticals' (VRX) upcoming earnings rollout can be both distracting and misleading.

Which drug businesses are they planning to put on the auction block? Will "crown jewel" Bausch & Lomb ever go up for sale? Will we see a recovery in Valeant's crucial dermatology businesses? Will a Hillary Clinton election win translate into a Big Pharma crackdown?

But there's only one metric that really counts, right now: free cash flow.

With nearly $31 billion in debt on the books, the beleaguered Canadian drugmaker needs to start churning out cash to fend off creditors as maturities loom. Lenders already have proven they're running the show at Valeant, after the drugmaker failed to file its annual 10-K on time with the Securities and Exchange Commission amid investigations into bookkeeping misconduct tied to Valeant's former relationship with mail-order pharmacy Philidor.

So as analysts and investors speculate on which assets CEO Joseph Papa offer to shore up cash, let's not forget the impetus driving Valeant to sell businesses in the first place: After years of debt-fueled acquisitions, the drugmaker is up against the wall with lenders and bondholders. (Papa, formerly the head of Irish drugmaker Perrigo (PRGO) - Get Perrigo Co. Plc Report , was named to helm Valeant in April, in the weeks surrounding the testimony of Valeant's former CEO Michael Pearson before a Senate subcommittee, in which he apologized for price hikes on acquired drugs and putting shareholders ahead of patients.)

Shares of Valeant, which are down more than 91% since last summer's peaks, fell more than 50% in March when Valeant announced it could be in technical default with creditors for delaying its 10-K filing, a delay that led to restrictive concessions -- including fees, restrictions on future acquisitions and on how Valeant spends its free cash.

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To quote Valeant's 10-K, which was finally filed in late April, violating debt covenants again could lead to more stringent concessions, meaning the company could be "forced into bankruptcy or liquidation and, as a result, investors could lose all or a portion of their investment in our securities."

Valeant added that a "failure to comply with these covenants could trigger events, which, if not cured or waived, could result in the acceleration of the related debt, a cross-default or cross-acceleration to other debt, foreclosure upon any collateral securing the debt and termination of any commitments to lend, each of which would have a material adverse effect on our business, [and] financial condition."

That is why price targets on Valeant's stock vary so widely, even within individual investment firms. RBC Capital Markets, for instance, said in a Wednesday investment note that Valeant's stock, which traded Friday at $22.25, has an upside potential of $71 and downside of $10, depending on whether Valeant can begin to generate meaningful organic growth. RBC also lowered its price target on Valeant Wednesday by $1, to $35, and suggested that Papa will likely lower the company's annual earnings guidance on its third-quarter earnings call. (Valeant's earnings are expected to be rolled out this month, but the date has yet to be specified.)

"We anticipate that Valeant will lower its 2016 guidance to about $9.7 billion to $9.9 billion in revenue (from $9.9 billion to $10.1 billion), $4.5 billion to $4.7 billion in adjusted Ebitda (from $4.8 billion to $4.95 billion),
and $6.25 to $6.55 in adjusted earnings per share," which is down from prior guidance of $6.60 to $7, RBC Capital analyst Douglas Miehm said.

Overall, the average consensus estimate is that Valeant's earnings will clock in at $1.77 a share, which is down 35% year-over-year, and sales are expected to clock in at $2.5 billion, down about 10% over the period. 

Valeant is a member of Real Money's Stressed Out watch list.

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