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. By way of learning-by-doing, we’ll look at ROE to gain a better understanding of W. R. Berkley Corporation (NYSE:WRB).
Over the last twelve months W. R. Berkley has recorded a ROE of 12%. Another way to think of that is that for every $1 worth of equity in the company, it was able to earn $0.12.
How Do You Calculate ROE?
The formula for return on equity is:
Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders’ Equity
Or for W. R. Berkley:
12% = US$641m ÷ US$5.5b (Based on the trailing twelve months to December 2018.)
It’s easy to understand the ‘net profit’ part of that equation, but ‘shareholders’ equity’ requires further explanation. 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 ROE Signify?
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 equal, investors should like a high ROE. That means ROE can be used to compare two businesses.
Does W. R. Berkley 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. As is clear from the image below, W. R. Berkley has a better ROE than the average (7.9%) in the Insurance industry.
That’s clearly a positive. In my book, a high ROE almost always warrants a closer look. One data point to check is if insiders have bought shares recently.
Why You Should Consider Debt When Looking At ROE
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.
W. R. Berkley’s Debt And Its 12% ROE
Although W. R. Berkley does use debt, its debt to equity ratio of 0.51 is still low. 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 a useful indicator of the ability of a business to generate profits and return them to shareholders. In my book the highest quality companies have high return on equity, despite low debt. All else being equal, a higher ROE is better.
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 you might want to check this FREE visualization of 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.
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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.