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. We'll use ROE to examine Greif, Inc. (NYSE:GEF), by way of a worked example.
Our data shows Greif has a return on equity of 16% for the last year. That means that for every $1 worth of shareholders' equity, it generated $0.16 in profit.
How Do I Calculate Return On Equity?
The formula for return on equity is:
Return on Equity = Net Profit (from continuing operations) ÷ Shareholders' Equity
Or for Greif:
16% = US$194m ÷ US$1.2b (Based on the trailing twelve months to October 2019.)
It's easy to understand the 'net profit' part of that equation, but 'shareholders' equity' requires further explanation. 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?
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 profit over the last twelve months. The higher the ROE, the more profit the company is making. So, all else equal, investors should like a high ROE. That means ROE can be used to compare two businesses.
Does Greif Have A Good ROE?
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. You can see in the graphic below that Greif has an ROE that is fairly close to the average for the Packaging industry (16%).
That isn't amazing, but it is respectable. ROE can give us a view about company quality, but many investors also look to other factors, such as whether there are insiders buying shares. If you are like me, then you will not want to miss this free list of growing companies that insiders are buying.
Why You Should Consider Debt When Looking At 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 Greif's Debt And Its 16% Return On Equity
Greif does use a significant amount of debt to increase returns. It has a debt to equity ratio of 2.31. There's no doubt the ROE is respectable, but it's worth keeping in mind that metric is elevated by the use of debt. 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 Key Takeaway
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.
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.
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.
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