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. We'll use ROE to examine KBR, Inc. (NYSE:KBR), by way of a worked example.
Over the last twelve months KBR has recorded a ROE of 11%. That means that for every $1 worth of shareholders' equity, it generated $0.11 in profit.
How Do I Calculate Return On Equity?
The formula for return on equity is:
Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders' Equity
Or for KBR:
11% = US$188m ÷ US$1.8b (Based on the trailing twelve months to June 2019.)
Most readers would understand what net profit is, but it’s worth explaining the concept of shareholders’ equity. 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 looks at the amount a company earns relative to the money it has kept within the business. 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. Clearly, then, one can use ROE to compare different companies.
Does KBR Have A Good Return On Equity?
By comparing a company's ROE with its industry average, we can get a quick measure of how good it is. 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, KBR has a lower ROE than the average (15%) in the IT industry classification.
That certainly isn't ideal. 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. Nonetheless, it could be useful to double-check if insiders have sold shares recently.
The Importance Of Debt To Return On Equity
Most companies need money -- from somewhere -- to grow their profits. That cash can come from issuing shares, retained earnings, or debt. 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. Thus the use of debt can improve ROE, albeit along with extra risk in the case of stormy weather, metaphorically speaking.
Combining KBR's Debt And Its 11% Return On Equity
While KBR does have some debt, with debt to equity of just 0.69, we wouldn't say debt is excessive. The fact that it achieved a fairly good ROE with only modest debt suggests the business might be worth putting on your watchlist. 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.
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 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. It is important to consider other factors, such as future profit growth -- and how much investment is required going forward. So you might want to check this FREE visualization of analyst forecasts for the company.
But note: KBR 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.