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. By way of learning-by-doing, we'll look at ROE to gain a better understanding of Canadian Pacific Railway Limited (TSE:CP).
Over the last twelve months Canadian Pacific Railway has recorded a ROE of 35%. One way to conceptualize this, is that for each CA$1 of shareholders' equity it has, the company made CA$0.35 in profit.
How Do You Calculate Return On Equity?
The formula for ROE is:
Return on Equity = Net Profit (from continuing operations) ÷ Shareholders' Equity
Or for Canadian Pacific Railway:
35% = CA$2.4b ÷ CA$7.1b (Based on the trailing twelve months to December 2019.)
Most know that net profit is the total earnings after all expenses, but the concept of shareholders' equity is a little more complicated. It is all earnings retained by the company, plus any capital paid in by shareholders. You can calculate shareholders' equity by subtracting the company's total liabilities from its total assets.
What Does ROE Mean?
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 amount earned after tax over the last twelve months. 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 Canadian Pacific Railway Have A Good ROE?
One simple way to determine if a company has a good return on equity is to compare it to the average for its industry. The limitation of this approach is that some companies are quite different from others, even within the same industry classification. As you can see in the graphic below, Canadian Pacific Railway has a higher ROE than the average (22%) in the Transportation industry.
That's what I like to see. We think a high ROE, alone, is usually enough to justify further research into a company. For example you might check if insiders are buying shares.
How Does Debt Impact ROE?
Most companies need money -- from somewhere -- to grow their profits. That cash can come from retained earnings, issuing new shares (equity), or debt. In the case of the first and second options, the ROE will reflect this use of cash, for growth. In the latter case, the debt used for growth will improve returns, but won't affect the total equity. In this manner the use of debt will boost ROE, even though the core economics of the business stay the same.
Canadian Pacific Railway's Debt And Its 35% ROE
Canadian Pacific Railway does use a significant amount of debt to increase returns. It has a debt to equity ratio of 1.22. There's no doubt its ROE is impressive, but the company appears to use its debt to boost that metric. Investors should think carefully about how a company might perform if it was unable to borrow so easily, because credit markets do change over time.
The Key Takeaway
Return on equity is a useful indicator of the ability of a business to generate profits and return them to shareholders. In my book the highest quality companies have high return on equity, despite low debt. If two companies have the same ROE, then I would generally prefer the one with less debt.
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. So I think it may be worth checking this free report on analyst forecasts for the company.
But note: Canadian Pacific Railway 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.
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.
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