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 Flex Ltd. (NASDAQ:FLEX).
Over the last twelve months Flex has recorded a ROE of 4.5%. Another way to think of that is that for every $1 worth of equity in the company, it was able to earn $0.045.
How Do I Calculate Return On Equity?
The formula for ROE is:
Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders' Equity
Or for Flex:
4.5% = US$138m ÷ US$3.1b (Based on the trailing twelve months to December 2018.)
Most readers would understand what net profit is, but it’s worth explaining the concept of shareholders’ equity. 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 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. The higher the ROE, the more profit the company is making. So, all else equal, investors should like a high ROE. Clearly, then, one can use ROE to compare different companies.
Does Flex Have A Good Return On Equity?
One simple way to determine if a company has a good return on equity is to compare it to the average for 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 is clear from the image below, Flex has a lower ROE than the average (12%) in the Electronic industry.
Unfortunately, that's sub-optimal. 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 Return On Equity?
Most companies need money -- from somewhere -- to grow their profits. That cash can come from issuing shares, retained earnings, or debt. In the first two cases, the ROE will capture this use of capital to grow. 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.
Combining Flex's Debt And Its 4.5% Return On Equity
Although Flex does use debt, its debt to equity ratio of 0.96 is still low. Its ROE is certainly on the low side, and since it already uses debt, we're not too excited about the company. Judicious use of debt to improve returns can certainly be a good thing, although it does elevate risk slightly and reduce future optionality.
The Bottom Line On ROE
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 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 you might want to check this FREE visualization of analyst forecasts for the company.
But note: Flex 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 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.