Many investors are still learning about the various metrics that can be useful when analysing a stock. This article is for those who would like to learn about Return On Equity (ROE). We'll use ROE to examine White Mountains Insurance Group, Ltd. (NYSE:WTM), by way of a worked example.
Our data shows White Mountains Insurance Group has a return on equity of 5.5% for the last year. That means that for every $1 worth of shareholders' equity, it generated $0.055 in profit.
How Do I Calculate ROE?
The formula for return on equity is:
Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders' Equity
Or for White Mountains Insurance Group:
5.5% = US$206m ÷ US$3.0b (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 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?
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. That means that the higher the ROE, the more profitable the company is. So, all else equal, investors should like a high ROE. That means it can be interesting to compare the ROE of different companies.
Does White Mountains Insurance Group Have A Good ROE?
Arguably the easiest way to assess company's ROE is to compare it with the average in its industry. However, this method is only useful as a rough check, because companies do differ quite a bit within the same industry classification. If you look at the image below, you can see White Mountains Insurance Group has a lower ROE than the average (8.6%) in the Insurance industry classification.
That certainly isn't ideal. It is better when the ROE is above industry average, but a low one doesn't necessarily mean the business is overpriced. Still, shareholders might want to check if insiders have been selling.
Why You Should Consider Debt When Looking At ROE
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 used for growth will improve returns, but won't affect the total equity. In this manner the use of debt will boost ROE, even though the core economics of the business stay the same.
Combining White Mountains Insurance Group's Debt And Its 5.5% Return On Equity
White Mountains Insurance Group has a debt to equity ratio of just 0.067, which is very low. I'm not impressed with its ROE, but the debt levels are not too high, indicating the business has decent prospects. Judicious use of debt to improve returns can certainly be a good thing, although it does elevate risk slightly and reduce future optionality.
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. 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. It is important to consider other factors, such as future profit growth -- and how much investment is required going forward. Check the past profit growth by White Mountains Insurance Group by looking at this visualization of past earnings, revenue and cash flow.
Of course White Mountains Insurance Group 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.
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If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at email@example.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.