While some investors are already well versed in financial metrics (hat tip), this article is for those who would like to learn about Return On Equity (ROE) and why it is important. To keep the lesson grounded in practicality, we'll use ROE to better understand Forward Air Corporation (NASDAQ:FWRD).
Forward Air has a ROE of 15%, based on the last twelve months. That means that for every $1 worth of shareholders' equity, it generated $0.15 in profit.
How Do You Calculate ROE?
The formula for ROE is:
Return on Equity = Net Profit (from continuing operations) ÷ Shareholders' Equity
Or for Forward Air:
15% = US$87m ÷ US$577m (Based on the trailing twelve months to December 2019.)
Most readers would understand what net profit is, but it’s worth explaining the concept of shareholders’ equity. It is the capital paid in by shareholders, plus any retained earnings. You can calculate shareholders' equity by subtracting the company's total liabilities from its total assets.
What Does ROE Mean?
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. Clearly, then, one can use ROE to compare different companies.
Does Forward Air 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. If you look at the image below, you can see Forward Air has a similar ROE to the average in the Logistics industry classification (15%).
That isn't amazing, but it is respectable. ROE tells us about the quality of the business, but it does not give us much of an idea if the share price is cheap. For those who like to find winning investments this free list of growing companies with recent insider purchasing, could be just the ticket.
How Does Debt Impact Return On Equity?
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 first and second cases, the ROE will reflect this use of cash for investment in the business. In the latter case, the debt used for growth will improve returns, but won't affect the total equity. In this manner the use of debt will boost ROE, even though the core economics of the business stay the same.
Forward Air's Debt And Its 15% ROE
Forward Air has a debt to equity ratio of 0.12, which is far from excessive. The combination of modest debt and a very respectable ROE suggests this is a business worth watching. 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.
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 around the same level of debt to equity, and one has a higher ROE, I'd generally prefer the one with higher ROE.
But ROE is just one piece of a bigger puzzle, since high quality businesses often trade on high multiples of earnings. 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 check this FREE visualization of analyst forecasts for the company.
But note: Forward Air 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 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.
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