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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. We'll use ROE to examine Cars.com Inc. (NYSE:CARS), by way of a worked example.
Over the last twelve months Cars.com has recorded a ROE of 1.8%. Another way to think of that is that for every $1 worth of equity in the company, it was able to earn $0.018.
How Do You Calculate ROE?
The formula for return on equity is:
Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders' Equity
Or for Cars.com:
1.8% = US$29m ÷ US$1.6b (Based on the trailing twelve months to March 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 Return On Equity Signify?
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. The higher the ROE, the more profit the company is making. So, all else equal, investors should like a high ROE. That means ROE can be used to compare two businesses.
Does Cars.com Have A Good Return On Equity?
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. If you look at the image below, you can see Cars.com has a lower ROE than the average (14%) in the Interactive Media and Services industry classification.
That's not what we like to see. 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.
How Does Debt Impact Return On Equity?
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 first and second cases, the ROE will reflect this use of cash for investment in the business. In the latter case, the debt required for growth will boost returns, but will not impact the shareholders' equity. In this manner the use of debt will boost ROE, even though the core economics of the business stay the same.
Combining Cars.com's Debt And Its 1.8% Return On Equity
Cars.com has a debt to equity ratio of 0.43, which is far from excessive. Its ROE is certainly on the low side, and since it already uses debt, we're not too excited about the company. 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. 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 when a business is high quality, the market often bids it up to a price that reflects this. 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 take a peek at this data-rich interactive graph of forecasts for the company.
Of course Cars.com 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 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.