Many investors are still learning about the various metrics that can be useful when analysing a stock. This article is for those who would like to learn about Return On Equity (ROE). By way of learning-by-doing, we'll look at ROE to gain a better understanding of Alleghany Corporation (NYSE:Y).
Our data shows Alleghany has a return on equity of 3.8% for the last year. That means that for every $1 worth of shareholders' equity, it generated $0.04 in profit.
How Do I Calculate ROE?
The formula for ROE is:
Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders' Equity
Or for Alleghany:
3.8% = US$309m ÷ US$8.9b (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. The easiest way to calculate shareholders' equity is to subtract the company's total liabilities from the total assets.
What Does ROE Mean?
ROE measures a company's profitability against the profit it retains, and any outside investments. The 'return' is the profit over the last twelve months. The higher the ROE, the more profit the company is making. So, as a general rule, a high ROE is a good thing. That means it can be interesting to compare the ROE of different companies.
Does Alleghany Have A Good Return On Equity?
One simple way to determine if a company has a good return on equity is to compare it to the average for its industry. However, this method is only useful as a rough check, because companies do differ quite a bit within the same industry classification. As is clear from the image below, Alleghany has a lower ROE than the average (8.6%) in the Insurance industry.
That certainly isn't ideal. We'd prefer see an ROE above the industry average, but it might not matter if the company is undervalued. Still, shareholders might want to check if insiders have been selling.
How Does Debt Impact Return On Equity?
Most companies need money -- from somewhere -- to grow their profits. The cash for investment can come from prior year profits (retained earnings), issuing new shares, or borrowing. 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 used for growth will improve returns, but won't affect the total equity. That will make the ROE look better than if no debt was used.
Alleghany's Debt And Its 3.8% ROE
Although Alleghany does use debt, its debt to equity ratio of 0.19 is still low. Its ROE is quite low, and the company already has some debt, so surely shareholders are hoping for an improvement. Judicious use of debt to improve returns can certainly be a good thing, although it does elevate risk slightly and reduce future optionality.
But It's Just One Metric
Return on equity is one way we can compare the business quality of different companies. In my book the highest quality companies have high return on equity, despite low debt. 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.
Having said that, while ROE is a useful indicator of business quality, you'll have to look at a whole range of factors to determine the right price to buy a stock. Profit growth rates, versus the expectations reflected in the price of the stock, are a particularly important to consider. So you might want to check this FREE visualization of analyst forecasts for the company.
But note: Alleghany may not be the best stock to buy. So take a peek at this free list of interesting companies with high ROE and low debt.
We aim to bring you long-term focused research analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material.
If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.