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Did Sun Life Financial Inc. (TSE:SLF) Use Debt To Deliver Its ROE Of 10%?

Simply Wall St

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One of the best investments we can make is in our own knowledge and skill set. With that in mind, this article will work through how we can use Return On Equity (ROE) to better understand a business. By way of learning-by-doing, we'll look at ROE to gain a better understanding of Sun Life Financial Inc. (TSE:SLF).

Our data shows Sun Life Financial has a return on equity of 10% for the last year. Another way to think of that is that for every CA$1 worth of equity in the company, it was able to earn CA$0.10.

View our latest analysis for Sun Life Financial

How Do I Calculate ROE?

The formula for ROE is:

Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders' Equity

Or for Sun Life Financial:

10% = CA$2.5b ÷ CA$25b (Based on the trailing twelve months to March 2019.)

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. You can calculate shareholders' equity by subtracting the company's total liabilities from its total assets.

What Does Return On Equity Signify?

ROE looks at the amount a company earns relative to the money it has kept within the business. The 'return' is the amount earned after tax 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. That means ROE can be used to compare two businesses.

Does Sun Life Financial Have A Good ROE?

By comparing a company's ROE with its industry average, we can get a quick measure of how good it is. Importantly, this is far from a perfect measure, because companies differ significantly within the same industry classification. The image below shows that Sun Life Financial has an ROE that is roughly in line with the Insurance industry average (9.7%).

TSX:SLF Past Revenue and Net Income, July 19th 2019

That's neither particularly good, nor bad. ROE can give us a view about company quality, but many investors also look to other factors, such as whether there are insiders buying shares. If you like to buy stocks alongside management, then you might just love this free list of companies. (Hint: insiders have been buying them).

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 use of debt will improve the returns, but will not change the equity. In this manner the use of debt will boost ROE, even though the core economics of the business stay the same.

Combining Sun Life Financial's Debt And Its 10% Return On Equity

Sun Life Financial has a debt to equity ratio of 0.18, which is far from excessive. The combination of modest debt and a very respectable ROE suggests this is a business worth watching. 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 one way we can compare the business quality of different companies. In my book the highest quality companies have high return on equity, despite low debt. 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 when a business is high quality, the market often bids it up to a price that reflects this. It is important to consider other factors, such as future profit growth -- and how much investment is required going forward. So you might want to take a peek at this data-rich interactive graph of forecasts for the company.

But note: Sun Life Financial 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.