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 Steelcase Inc. (NYSE:SCS).
Our data shows Steelcase has a return on equity of 16% for the last year. One way to conceptualize this, is that for each $1 of shareholders' equity it has, the company made $0.16 in profit.
How Do You Calculate Return On Equity?
The formula for ROE is:
Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders' Equity
Or for Steelcase:
16% = US$136m ÷ US$889m (Based on the trailing twelve months to August 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 the capital paid in by shareholders, plus any retained earnings. Shareholders' equity can be calculated by subtracting the total liabilities of the company from the total assets of the company.
What Does ROE Mean?
ROE measures a company's profitability against the profit it retains, and any outside investments. The 'return' is the yearly profit. That means that the higher the ROE, the more profitable the company is. 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 Steelcase 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. However, this method is only useful as a rough check, because companies do differ quite a bit within the same industry classification. As is clear from the image below, Steelcase has a better ROE than the average (13%) in the Commercial Services industry.
That is a good sign. I usually take a closer look when a company has a better ROE than industry peers. For example, I often check if insiders have been buying shares.
The Importance Of Debt To Return On Equity
Companies usually need to invest money to grow their 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. In this manner the use of debt will boost ROE, even though the core economics of the business stay the same.
Steelcase's Debt And Its 16% ROE
Steelcase has a debt to equity ratio of 0.55, which is far from excessive. The combination of modest debt and a very respectable ROE suggests this is a business worth watching. 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 useful for comparing the quality of different businesses. In my book the highest quality companies have high return on equity, despite low debt. 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. 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.
But note: Steelcase 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.
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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.