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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 NorthWestern Corporation (NYSE:NWE).
Over the last twelve months NorthWestern has recorded a ROE of 11%. Another way to think of that is that for every $1 worth of equity in the company, it was able to earn $0.11.
How Do You Calculate Return On Equity?
The formula for ROE is:
Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders' Equity
Or for NorthWestern:
11% = US$215m ÷ US$2.0b (Based on the trailing twelve months to June 2019.)
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. The easiest way to calculate shareholders' equity is to subtract the company's total liabilities from the total assets.
What Does Return On Equity 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. The higher the ROE, the more profit the company is making. So, all else being equal, a high ROE is better than a low one. That means ROE can be used to compare two businesses.
Does NorthWestern Have A Good ROE?
Arguably the easiest way to assess company's ROE is to compare it with the average in its industry. Importantly, this is far from a perfect measure, because companies differ significantly within the same industry classification. The image below shows that NorthWestern has an ROE that is roughly in line with the Integrated Utilities industry average (10%).
That's not overly surprising. 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. If you like to buy stocks alongside management, then you might just love this free list of companies. (Hint: insiders have been buying them).
How Does Debt Impact Return On Equity?
Companies usually need to invest money to grow their profits. That cash can come from issuing shares, retained earnings, or debt. In the case of the first and second options, the ROE will reflect this use of cash, for growth. In the latter case, the debt used for growth will improve returns, but won't affect the total equity. Thus the use of debt can improve ROE, albeit along with extra risk in the case of stormy weather, metaphorically speaking.
NorthWestern's Debt And Its 11% ROE
NorthWestern clearly uses a significant amount of debt to boost returns, as it has a debt to equity ratio of 1.07. The company doesn't have a bad ROE, but it is less than ideal tht it has had to use debt to achieve its returns. Investors should think carefully about how a company might perform if it was unable to borrow so easily, because credit markets do change over time.
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. 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 I think it may be worth checking this free report on analyst forecasts for the company.
If you would prefer check out another company -- one with potentially superior financials -- then do not miss thisfree list of interesting companies, that have HIGH return on equity 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.