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Should First Solar, Inc. (NASDAQ:FSLR) Focus On Improving This Fundamental Metric?

Simply Wall St

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). We'll use ROE to examine First Solar, Inc. (NASDAQ:FSLR), by way of a worked example.

Over the last twelve months First Solar has recorded a ROE of 0.5%. That means that for every $1 worth of shareholders' equity, it generated $0.0046 in profit.

Check out our latest analysis for First Solar

How Do You Calculate Return On Equity?

The formula for return on equity is:

Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders' Equity

Or for First Solar:

0.5% = US$24m ÷ US$5.1b (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 the money paid into the company from shareholders, plus any earnings retained. Shareholders' equity can be calculated by subtracting the total liabilities of the company from the total assets of the company.

What Does ROE Mean?

ROE measures a company's profitability against the profit it retains, and any outside investments. 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, all else being equal, a high ROE is better than a low one. Clearly, then, one can use ROE to compare different companies.

Does First Solar Have A Good ROE?

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. As shown in the graphic below, First Solar has a lower ROE than the average (12%) in the Semiconductor industry classification.

NasdaqGS:FSLR Past Revenue and Net Income, September 9th 2019

That's not what we like to see. It is better when the ROE is above industry average, but a low one doesn't necessarily mean the business is overpriced. Nonetheless, it might be wise to check if insiders have been selling.

How Does Debt Impact ROE?

Companies usually need to invest money to grow their profits. The cash for investment can come from prior year profits (retained earnings), issuing new shares, or borrowing. 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. In this manner the use of debt will boost ROE, even though the core economics of the business stay the same.

Combining First Solar's Debt And Its 0.5% Return On Equity

First Solar has a debt to equity ratio of just 0.096, which is very low. Its ROE is rather low, and it does use some debt, albeit not much. That's not great to see. Conservative use of debt to boost returns is usually a good move for shareholders, though it does leave the company more exposed to interest rate rises.

But It's Just One Metric

Return on equity is a useful indicator of the ability of a business to generate profits and return them to shareholders. 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. 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: First Solar 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.