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Should We Be Cautious About Ascential plc's (LON:ASCL) ROE Of 3.7%?

Simply Wall St

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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 Ascential plc (LON:ASCL).

Over the last twelve months Ascential has recorded a ROE of 3.7%. Another way to think of that is that for every £1 worth of equity in the company, it was able to earn £0.037.

See our latest analysis for Ascential

How Do I Calculate ROE?

The formula for ROE is:

Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders' Equity

Or for Ascential:

3.7% = UK£20m ÷ UK£547m (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 all earnings retained by the company, plus any capital paid in by shareholders. The easiest way to calculate shareholders' equity is to subtract the company's total liabilities from the total assets.

What Does Return On Equity Signify?

ROE looks at the amount a company earns relative to the money it has kept within the business. The 'return' is the amount earned after tax over the last twelve months. That means that the higher the ROE, the more profitable the company is. So, all else equal, investors should like a high ROE. Clearly, then, one can use ROE to compare different companies.

Does Ascential Have A Good ROE?

Arguably the easiest way to assess company's ROE is to compare it with the average in its industry. The limitation of this approach is that some companies are quite different from others, even within the same industry classification. As is clear from the image below, Ascential has a lower ROE than the average (12%) in the Media industry.

LSE:ASCL Past Revenue and Net Income, June 14th 2019

Unfortunately, that's sub-optimal. We prefer it when the ROE of a company is above the industry average, but it's not the be-all and end-all if it is lower. Still, shareholders might want to check if insiders have been selling.

Why You Should Consider Debt When Looking At ROE

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 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.

Ascential's Debt And Its 3.7% ROE

Although Ascential does use debt, its debt to equity ratio of 0.53 is still low. Its ROE isn't particularly impressive, but the debt levels are quite modest, so the business probably has some real potential. Careful use of debt to boost returns is often very good for shareholders. However, it could reduce the company's ability to take advantage of future opportunities.

In Summary

Return on equity is one way we can compare the business quality of different companies. A company that can achieve a high return on equity without debt could be considered a high quality business. All else being equal, a higher ROE is better.

But ROE is just one piece of a bigger puzzle, since high quality businesses often trade on high multiples of earnings. It is important to consider other factors, such as future profit growth -- and how much investment is required going forward. So I think it may be worth checking this free report on analyst forecasts for the company.

Of course Ascential may not be the best stock to buy. So you may wish to see this free collection of other companies that have 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 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.