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Did Graham Holdings Company (NYSE:GHC) Use Debt To Deliver Its ROE Of 10%?

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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 Graham Holdings Company (NYSE:GHC), by way of a worked example.

Graham Holdings has a ROE of 10%, based on the last twelve months. That means that for every $1 worth of shareholders' equity, it generated $0.10 in profit.

Check out our latest analysis for Graham Holdings

How Do You Calculate Return On Equity?

The formula for ROE is:

Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders' Equity

Or for Graham Holdings:

10% = US$308m ÷ US$3.0b (Based on the trailing twelve months to March 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. The easiest way to calculate shareholders' equity is to subtract the company's total liabilities from the total assets.

What Does ROE Signify?

ROE looks at the amount a company earns relative to the money it has kept within the business. The 'return' is the profit over the last twelve months. The higher the ROE, the more profit the company is making. 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 Graham Holdings Have A Good Return On Equity?

By comparing a company's ROE with its industry average, we can get a quick measure of how good it is. The limitation of this approach is that some companies are quite different from others, even within the same industry classification. The image below shows that Graham Holdings has an ROE that is roughly in line with the Consumer Services industry average (13%).

NYSE:GHC Past Revenue and Net Income, July 19th 2019

That isn't amazing, but it is respectable. ROE doesn't tell us if the share price is low, but it can inform us to the nature of the business. For those looking for a bargain, other factors may be more important. I will like Graham Holdings better if I see some big insider buys. While we wait, check out this free list of growing companies with considerable, recent, insider buying.

The Importance Of Debt To Return On Equity

Companies usually need to invest money to grow their profits. The cash for investment can come from prior year profits (retained earnings), issuing new shares, or borrowing. In the first and second cases, the ROE will reflect this use of cash for investment in the business. In the latter case, the use of debt will improve the returns, but will not change the equity. Thus the use of debt can improve ROE, albeit along with extra risk in the case of stormy weather, metaphorically speaking.

Combining Graham Holdings's Debt And Its 10% Return On Equity

While Graham Holdings does have some debt, with debt to equity of just 0.18, we wouldn't say debt is excessive. Its ROE isn't particularly impressive, but the debt levels are quite modest, so the business probably has some real potential. Conservative use of debt to boost returns is usually a good move for shareholders, though it does leave the company more exposed to interest rate rises.

The Bottom Line On ROE

Return on equity is useful for comparing the quality of different businesses. Companies that can achieve high returns on equity without too much debt are generally of good quality. 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. 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 this detailed graph of past earnings, revenue and cash flow .

But note: Graham Holdings 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.

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 editorial-team@simplywallst.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.