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Is CNA Financial Corporation’s (NYSE:CNA) 8.1% Better Than Average?

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 CNA Financial Corporation (NYSE:CNA).

Our data shows CNA Financial has a return on equity of 8.1% for the last year. One way to conceptualize this, is that for each $1 of shareholders’ equity it has, the company made $0.081 in profit.

View our latest analysis for CNA Financial

How Do I Calculate ROE?

The formula for ROE is:

Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders’ Equity

Or for CNA Financial:

8.1% = US$928m ÷ US$11.4b (Based on the trailing twelve months to June 2018.)

Most readers would understand what net profit is, but it’s worth explaining the concept of shareholders’ equity. It is the capital paid in by shareholders, plus any retained earnings. 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?

ROE looks at the amount a company earns relative to the money it has kept within the business. The ‘return’ is the yearly profit. 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 CNA Financial 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 CNA Financial has a similar ROE to the average in the insurance industry classification (9.9%).

NYSE:CNA Last Perf November 5th 18

That’s neither particularly good, nor bad. Of course, this year’s ROE might be a product of last year’s decisions. So I like to check the tenure of the board and CEO, before reaching any conclusions.

How Does Debt Impact Return On Equity?

Virtually all companies need money to invest in the business, to grow profits. The cash for investment can come from prior year profits (retained earnings), issuing new shares, or borrowing. 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. Thus the use of debt can improve ROE, albeit along with extra risk in the case of stormy weather, metaphorically speaking.

Combining CNA Financial’s Debt And Its 8.1% Return On Equity

CNA Financial has a debt to equity ratio of 0.24, which is far from excessive. Although the ROE isn’t overly impressive, the debt load is modest, suggesting the business has 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.

The Bottom Line On ROE

Return on equity is one way we can compare the business quality of different companies. Companies that can achieve high returns on equity without too much debt are generally of good quality. 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 ROE is just one piece of a bigger puzzle, since high quality businesses often trade on high multiples of earnings. Profit growth rates, versus the expectations reflected in the price of the stock, are a particularly important to consider. So I think it may be worth checking this free report on analyst forecasts for the company.

If you would prefer check out another company — one with potentially superior financials — then do not miss this free list of interesting companies, that have HIGH return on equity and low debt.

To help readers see past the short term volatility of the financial market, we aim to bring you a long-term focused research analysis purely driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis does not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements.

The author is an independent contributor and at the time of publication had no position in the stocks mentioned. For errors that warrant correction please contact the editor at editorial-team@simplywallst.com.