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Is Atlas Arteria Limited's (ASX:ALX) ROE Of 2.6% Concerning?

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While some investors are already well versed in financial metrics (hat tip), this article is for those who would like to learn about Return On Equity (ROE) and why it is important. We'll use ROE to examine Atlas Arteria Limited (ASX:ALX), by way of a worked example.

Over the last twelve months Atlas Arteria has recorded a ROE of 2.6%. Another way to think of that is that for every A$1 worth of equity in the company, it was able to earn A$0.026.

View our latest analysis for Atlas Arteria

How Do You Calculate Return On Equity?

The formula for ROE is:

Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders' Equity

Or for Atlas Arteria:

2.6% = AU$60m ÷ AU$2.3b (Based on the trailing twelve months to December 2018.)

It's easy to understand the 'net profit' part of that equation, but 'shareholders' equity' requires further explanation. It is the capital paid in by shareholders, plus any retained earnings. You can calculate shareholders' equity by subtracting the company's total liabilities from its total assets.

What Does ROE Signify?

Return on Equity measures a company's profitability against the profit it has kept for the business (plus any capital injections). The 'return' is the yearly profit. A higher profit will lead to a higher ROE. So, as a general rule, a high ROE is a good thing. Clearly, then, one can use ROE to compare different companies.

Does Atlas Arteria Have A Good ROE?

Arguably the easiest way to assess company's ROE is to compare it with the average in 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 shown in the graphic below, Atlas Arteria has a lower ROE than the average (8.3%) in the Infrastructure industry classification.

ASX:ALX Past Revenue and Net Income, May 6th 2019

That certainly isn't ideal. It is better when the ROE is above industry average, but a low one doesn't necessarily mean the business is overpriced. Still, shareholders might want to check if insiders have been selling.

The Importance Of Debt To Return On Equity

Virtually all companies need money to invest in the business, to grow profits. That cash can come from issuing shares, retained earnings, or debt. In the first two cases, the ROE will capture this use of capital to grow. In the latter case, the debt used for growth will improve returns, but won't affect the total equity. Thus the use of debt can improve ROE, albeit along with extra risk in the case of stormy weather, metaphorically speaking.

Atlas Arteria's Debt And Its 2.6% ROE

While Atlas Arteria does have some debt, with debt to equity of just 0.94, we wouldn't say debt is excessive. Its ROE is certainly on the low side, and since it already uses debt, we're not too excited about the company. Judicious use of debt to improve returns can certainly be a good thing, although it does elevate risk slightly and reduce future optionality.

The Bottom Line On ROE

Return on equity is a useful indicator of the ability of a business to generate profits and return them to shareholders. A company that can achieve a high return on equity without debt could be considered a high quality business. If two companies have the same ROE, then I would generally prefer the one with less debt.

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 I think it may be worth checking this free report on analyst forecasts for the company.

If you would prefer check out another company -- one with potentially superior financials -- then do not miss this free list of interesting companies, that have HIGH return on equity 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 editorial-team@simplywallst.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.