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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. To keep the lesson grounded in practicality, we'll use ROE to better understand Electro-Sensors, Inc. (NASDAQ:ELSE).
Our data shows Electro-Sensors has a return on equity of 1.1% 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 $0.01.
How Do You Calculate ROE?
The formula for return on equity is:
Return on Equity = Net Profit (from continuing operations) ÷ Shareholders' Equity
Or for Electro-Sensors:
1.1% = US$139k ÷ US$13m (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 Return On Equity 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 yearly profit. A higher profit will lead to a higher ROE. So, all else equal, investors should like a high ROE. That means ROE can be used to compare two businesses.
Does Electro-Sensors 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. If you look at the image below, you can see Electro-Sensors has a lower ROE than the average (11%) in the Electronic industry classification.
That's not what we like to see. We'd prefer see an ROE above the industry average, but it might not matter if the company is undervalued. Nonetheless, it could be useful to double-check if insiders have sold shares recently.
How Does Debt Impact ROE?
Most companies need money -- from somewhere -- to grow their profits. That cash can come from retained earnings, issuing new shares (equity), or debt. 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. In this manner the use of debt will boost ROE, even though the core economics of the business stay the same.
Combining Electro-Sensors's Debt And Its 1.1% Return On Equity
Electro-Sensors is free of net debt, which is a positive for shareholders. Without a doubt it has a fairly low ROE, but that isn't so bad when you consider it has no debt. At the end of the day, when a company has zero debt, it is in a better position to take future growth opportunities.
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. All else being equal, a higher ROE is better.
But ROE is just one piece of a bigger puzzle, since high quality businesses often trade on high multiples of earnings. It is important to consider other factors, such as future profit growth -- and how much investment is required going forward. Check the past profit growth by Electro-Sensors by looking at this visualization of past earnings, revenue and cash flow.
But note: Electro-Sensors 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.
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.
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. Thank you for reading.