IF ONE GROUP of managers was able to squeeze more money out its assets or capital than another, you'd go with the first one, right? Of course. That's why accountants and stock analysts long ago began looking for a reliable way to measure management efficiency. Return on equity (ROE) and return on assets (ROA) are what they came up with.
Both ratios are an effort to measure how much earnings a company extracts from its resources. Return on equity is calculated by taking income (before any non-recurring items) and dividing it by the company's common equity or book value. Expressed as a percentage, it tells you what return the company is making on the equity capital it has deployed. Return on assets is income divided by total assets. It gives you a sense of how much the company makes from all the assets it has on the books -- from its factories to its inventories.
As measures of pure efficiency, these ratios aren't particularly accurate. For one thing (as we've mentioned repeatedly), earnings can be manipulated. It's also true that the asset values expressed on balance sheets are (for various reasons) not entirely reflective of what a company is really worth. Microsoft or an investment bank like Goldman Sachs, as they say, rely on thousands of intellectual assets that walk out the front door every day.
But ROE and ROA are still effective tools for comparing stocks. Since all U.S. companies are required to follow the same accounting rules, these ratios do put companies in like industries on a level playing field. They also allow you to see which industries are inherently more profitable than others.