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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. We'll use ROE to examine Heartland Express, Inc. (NASDAQ:HTLD), by way of a worked example.
Our data shows Heartland Express has a return on equity of 12% for the last year. One way to conceptualize this, is that for each $1 of shareholders' equity it has, the company made $0.12 in profit.
How Do I Calculate Return On Equity?
The formula for return on equity is:
Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders' Equity
Or for Heartland Express:
12% = US$77m ÷ US$632m (Based on the trailing twelve months to March 2019.)
It's easy to understand the 'net profit' part of that equation, but 'shareholders' equity' requires further explanation. It is all the money paid into the company from shareholders, plus any earnings retained. You can calculate shareholders' equity by subtracting the company's total liabilities from its total assets.
What Does ROE Signify?
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 amount earned after tax over the last twelve months. That means that the higher the ROE, the more profitable the company is. So, as a general rule, a high ROE is a good thing. That means it can be interesting to compare the ROE of different companies.
Does Heartland Express Have A Good ROE?
One simple way to determine if a company has a good return on equity is to compare it to the average for its industry. Importantly, this is far from a perfect measure, because companies differ significantly within the same industry classification. You can see in the graphic below that Heartland Express has an ROE that is fairly close to the average for the Transportation industry (12%).
That's not overly surprising. 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. For those who like to find winning investments this free list of growing companies with recent insider purchasing, could be just the ticket.
Why You Should Consider Debt When Looking At ROE
Companies usually need to invest money to grow their profits. That cash can come from retained earnings, issuing new shares (equity), 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 use of debt will improve the returns, but will not change the equity. That will make the ROE look better than if no debt was used.
Heartland Express's Debt And Its 12% ROE
Shareholders will be pleased to learn that Heartland Express has not one iota of net debt! Its ROE already suggests it is a good business, but the fact it has achieved this -- and doesn't borrowings -- makes it worthy of further consideration, in my view. After all, with cash on the balance sheet, a company has a lot more optionality in good times and bad.
But It's Just One Metric
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. 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. 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 take a peek at this data-rich interactive graph of 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.
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 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.