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 FleetCor Technologies, Inc. (NYSE:FLT).
FleetCor Technologies has a ROE of 23%, based on the last twelve months. One way to conceptualize this, is that for each $1 of shareholders' equity it has, the company made $0.23 in profit.
How Do I Calculate Return On Equity?
The formula for ROE is:
Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders' Equity
Or for FleetCor Technologies:
23% = US$893m ÷ US$3.8b (Based on the trailing twelve months to June 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 all earnings retained by the company, plus any capital paid in by shareholders. You can calculate shareholders' equity by subtracting the company's total liabilities from its total assets.
What Does ROE Signify?
ROE measures a company's profitability against the profit it retains, and any outside investments. The 'return' is the profit over the last twelve months. A higher profit will lead to a higher ROE. 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 FleetCor Technologies 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. However, this method is only useful as a rough check, because companies do differ quite a bit within the same industry classification. As you can see in the graphic below, FleetCor Technologies has a higher ROE than the average (16%) in the IT industry.
That's what I like to see. I usually take a closer look when a company has a better ROE than industry peers. For example, I often check if insiders have been buying shares.
How Does Debt Impact ROE?
Virtually all companies need money to invest in the business, to grow profits. That cash can come from retained earnings, issuing new shares (equity), or debt. In the first two cases, the ROE will capture this use of capital to grow. 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.
FleetCor Technologies's Debt And Its 23% ROE
It's worth noting the significant use of debt by FleetCor Technologies, leading to its debt to equity ratio of 1.20. There's no doubt its ROE is impressive, but the company appears to use its debt to boost that metric. Debt increases risk and reduces options for the company in the future, so you generally want to see some good returns from using it.
The Bottom Line On ROE
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 the same ROE, then I would generally prefer the one with less debt.
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 report on analyst forecasts for the company.
But note: FleetCor Technologies 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.
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If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.