One of the best investments we can make is in our own knowledge and skill set. With that in mind, this article will work through how we can use Return On Equity (ROE) to better understand a business. By way of learning-by-doing, we'll look at ROE to gain a better understanding of Alexander's, Inc. (NYSE:ALX).
Our data shows Alexander's has a return on equity of 20% for the last year. That means that for every $1 worth of shareholders' equity, it generated $0.20 in profit.
How Do You Calculate ROE?
The formula for return on equity is:
Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders' Equity
Or for Alexander's:
20% = US$54m ÷ US$269m (Based on the trailing twelve months to June 2019.)
It's easy to understand the 'net profit' part of that equation, but 'shareholders' equity' requires further explanation. It is all the money paid into the company from shareholders, plus any earnings retained. You can calculate shareholders' equity by subtracting the company's total liabilities from its total assets.
What Does ROE Signify?
ROE looks at the amount a company earns relative to the money it has kept within the business. The 'return' is the yearly profit. A higher profit will lead to a higher ROE. So, all else equal, investors should like a high ROE. Clearly, then, one can use ROE to compare different companies.
Does Alexander's Have A Good Return On Equity?
By comparing a company's ROE with its industry average, we can get a quick measure of how good it is. The limitation of this approach is that some companies are quite different from others, even within the same industry classification. Pleasingly, Alexander's has a superior ROE than the average (6.1%) company in the REITs industry.
That's clearly a positive. We think a high ROE, alone, is usually enough to justify further research into a company. For example, I often check if insiders have been buying shares.
How Does Debt Impact Return On Equity?
Virtually all companies need money to invest in the business, to grow profits. That cash can come from retained earnings, issuing new shares (equity), or debt. In the first and second cases, the ROE will reflect this use of cash for investment in the business. In the latter case, the debt required for growth will boost returns, but will not impact the shareholders' equity. Thus the use of debt can improve ROE, albeit along with extra risk in the case of stormy weather, metaphorically speaking.
Alexander's's Debt And Its 20% ROE
It appears that Alexander's makes extensive use of debt to improve its returns, because it has a relatively high debt to equity ratio of 3.61. Its ROE is decent, but once I consider all the debt, I'm not really impressed.
The Key Takeaway
Return on equity is useful for comparing the quality of different businesses. A company that can achieve a high return on equity without debt could be considered a high quality business. If two companies have around the same level of debt to equity, and one has a higher ROE, I'd generally prefer the one with higher ROE.
But ROE is just one piece of a bigger puzzle, since high quality businesses often trade on high multiples of earnings. The rate at which profits are likely to grow, relative to the expectations of profit growth reflected in the current price, must be considered, too. Check the past profit growth by Alexander's by looking at this visualization of past earnings, revenue and cash flow.
If you would prefer check out another company -- one with potentially superior financials -- then do not miss thisfree list of interesting companies, that have HIGH return on equity and low debt.
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If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at email@example.com. 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. Simply Wall St has no position in the stocks mentioned. Thank you for reading.