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How Do CAI International, Inc.’s (NYSE:CAI) Returns On Capital Compare To Peers?

Simply Wall St

Today we'll look at CAI International, Inc. (NYSE:CAI) and reflect on its potential as an investment. Specifically, we'll consider its Return On Capital Employed (ROCE), since that will give us an insight into how efficiently the business can generate profits from the capital it requires.

First, we'll go over how we calculate ROCE. Second, we'll look at its ROCE compared to similar companies. Last but not least, we'll look at what impact its current liabilities have on its ROCE.

What is Return On Capital Employed (ROCE)?

ROCE is a measure of a company's yearly pre-tax profit (its return), relative to the capital employed in the business. Generally speaking a higher ROCE is better. Ultimately, it is a useful but imperfect metric. Renowned investment researcher Michael Mauboussin has suggested that a high ROCE can indicate that 'one dollar invested in the company generates value of more than one dollar'.

So, How Do We Calculate ROCE?

The formula for calculating the return on capital employed is:

Return on Capital Employed = Earnings Before Interest and Tax (EBIT) ÷ (Total Assets - Current Liabilities)

Or for CAI International:

0.064 = US$163m ÷ (US$3.0b - US$425m) (Based on the trailing twelve months to June 2019.)

So, CAI International has an ROCE of 6.4%.

View our latest analysis for CAI International

Is CAI International's ROCE Good?

When making comparisons between similar businesses, investors may find ROCE useful. Using our data, CAI International's ROCE appears to be significantly below the 8.8% average in the Trade Distributors industry. This performance is not ideal, as it suggests the company may not be deploying its capital as effectively as some competitors. Separate from how CAI International stacks up against its industry, its ROCE in absolute terms is mediocre; relative to the returns on government bonds. Readers may find more attractive investment prospects elsewhere.

Our data shows that CAI International currently has an ROCE of 6.4%, compared to its ROCE of 4.2% 3 years ago. This makes us think about whether the company has been reinvesting shrewdly. You can see in the image below how CAI International's ROCE compares to its industry. Click to see more on past growth.

NYSE:CAI Past Revenue and Net Income, September 9th 2019

It is important to remember that ROCE shows past performance, and is not necessarily predictive. ROCE can be misleading for companies in cyclical industries, with returns looking impressive during the boom times, but very weak during the busts. This is because ROCE only looks at one year, instead of considering returns across a whole cycle. Since the future is so important for investors, you should check out our free report on analyst forecasts for CAI International.

How CAI International's Current Liabilities Impact Its ROCE

Current liabilities include invoices, such as supplier payments, short-term debt, or a tax bill, that need to be paid within 12 months. Due to the way ROCE is calculated, a high level of current liabilities makes a company look as though it has less capital employed, and thus can (sometimes unfairly) boost the ROCE. To counter this, investors can check if a company has high current liabilities relative to total assets.

CAI International has total liabilities of US$425m and total assets of US$3.0b. As a result, its current liabilities are equal to approximately 14% of its total assets. This very reasonable level of current liabilities would not boost the ROCE by much.

The Bottom Line On CAI International's ROCE

If CAI International continues to earn an uninspiring ROCE, there may be better places to invest. You might be able to find a better investment than CAI International. If you want a selection of possible winners, check out this free list of interesting companies that trade on a P/E below 20 (but have proven they can grow earnings).

For those who like to find winning investments this free list of growing companies with recent insider purchasing, could be just the ticket.

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.