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 The Williams Companies, Inc. (NYSE:WMB).
Over the last twelve months Williams Companies has recorded a ROE of 1.1%. Another way to think of that is that for every $1 worth of equity in the company, it was able to earn $0.011.
How Do I Calculate ROE?
The formula for return on equity is:
Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders' Equity
Or for Williams Companies:
1.1% = US$61m ÷ US$17b (Based on the trailing twelve months to June 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 the money paid into the company from shareholders, plus any earnings retained. You can calculate shareholders' equity by subtracting the company's total liabilities from its total assets.
What Does ROE Mean?
ROE measures a company's profitability against the profit it retains, and any outside investments. The 'return' is the profit over the last twelve months. A higher profit will lead to a higher ROE. So, all else equal, investors should like a high ROE. That means ROE can be used to compare two businesses.
Does Williams Companies Have A Good ROE?
Arguably the easiest way to assess company's ROE is to compare it with the average in its industry. Importantly, this is far from a perfect measure, because companies differ significantly within the same industry classification. As is clear from the image below, Williams Companies has a lower ROE than the average (13%) in the Oil and Gas industry.
Unfortunately, that's sub-optimal. It is better when the ROE is above industry average, but a low one doesn't necessarily mean the business is overpriced. Nonetheless, it could be useful to double-check if insiders have sold shares recently.
How Does Debt Impact 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. That will make the ROE look better than if no debt was used.
Combining Williams Companies's Debt And Its 1.1% Return On Equity
Williams Companies clearly uses a significant amount of debt to boost returns, as it has a debt to equity ratio of 1.30. The combination of a rather low ROE and significant use of debt is not particularly appealing. 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 useful for comparing the quality of different businesses. 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.
But when a business is high quality, the market often bids it up to a price that reflects this. 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 you might want to take a peek at this data-rich interactive graph of forecasts for the company.
Of course, you might find a fantastic investment by looking elsewhere. So take a peek at this free list of interesting companies.
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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.