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). By way of learning-by-doing, we'll look at ROE to gain a better understanding of Atmos Energy Corporation (NYSE:ATO).
Our data shows Atmos Energy has a return on equity of 8.9% for the last year. Another way to think of that is that for every $1 worth of equity in the company, it was able to earn $0.09.
How Do You Calculate ROE?
The formula for return on equity is:
Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders' Equity
Or for Atmos Energy:
8.9% = US$511m ÷ US$5.8b (Based on the trailing twelve months to September 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?
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 profit over the last twelve months. The higher the ROE, the more profit the company is making. So, as a general rule, a high ROE is a good thing. That means ROE can be used to compare two businesses.
Does Atmos Energy Have A Good Return On Equity?
Arguably the easiest way to assess company's ROE is to compare it with the average in its industry. The limitation of this approach is that some companies are quite different from others, even within the same industry classification. You can see in the graphic below that Atmos Energy has an ROE that is fairly close to the average for the Gas Utilities industry (8.6%).
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).
How Does Debt Impact ROE?
Most companies need money -- from somewhere -- to grow their profits. That cash can come from issuing shares, retained earnings, or debt. In the case of the first and second options, the ROE will reflect this use of cash, for growth. In the latter case, the debt required for growth will boost returns, but will not impact the shareholders' equity. Thus the use of debt can improve ROE, albeit along with extra risk in the case of stormy weather, metaphorically speaking.
Combining Atmos Energy's Debt And Its 8.9% Return On Equity
Although Atmos Energy does use debt, its debt to equity ratio of 0.69 is still low. Its ROE isn't particularly impressive, but the debt levels are quite modest, so the business probably has some real potential. 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.
The Key Takeaway
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. 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.
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 I think it may be worth checking this free report on analyst forecasts for the company.
Of course Atmos Energy 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.