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Is CF Industries Holdings, Inc.'s (NYSE:CF) ROE Of 8.1% Concerning?

Simply Wall St

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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. To keep the lesson grounded in practicality, we'll use ROE to better understand CF Industries Holdings, Inc. (NYSE:CF).

CF Industries Holdings has a ROE of 8.1%, based on the last twelve months. One way to conceptualize this, is that for each $1 of shareholders' equity it has, the company made $0.081 in profit.

See our latest analysis for CF Industries Holdings

How Do I Calculate ROE?

The formula for return on equity is:

Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders' Equity

Or for CF Industries Holdings:

8.1% = US$317m ÷ US$5.7b (Based on the trailing twelve months to March 2019.)

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 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 yearly profit. The higher the ROE, the more profit the company is making. So, all else being equal, a high ROE is better than a low one. Clearly, then, one can use ROE to compare different companies.

Does CF Industries Holdings 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. The limitation of this approach is that some companies are quite different from others, even within the same industry classification. If you look at the image below, you can see CF Industries Holdings has a lower ROE than the average (15%) in the Chemicals industry classification.

NYSE:CF Past Revenue and Net Income, July 18th 2019

That certainly isn't ideal. We'd prefer see an ROE above the industry average, but it might not matter if the company is undervalued. Still, shareholders might want to check if insiders have been selling.

How Does Debt Impact ROE?

Companies usually need to invest money to grow their profits. The cash for investment can come from prior year profits (retained earnings), issuing new shares, or borrowing. 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. That will make the ROE look better than if no debt was used.

Combining CF Industries Holdings's Debt And Its 8.1% Return On Equity

Although CF Industries Holdings does use debt, its debt to equity ratio of 0.83 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.

But It's Just One Metric

Return on equity is a useful indicator of the ability of a business to generate profits and return them to shareholders. A company that can achieve a high return on equity without debt could be considered a high quality business. If two companies have the same ROE, then I would generally prefer the one with less debt.

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. 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: CF Industries Holdings 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 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.