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 BAE Systems plc (LON:BA.).
Over the last twelve months BAE Systems has recorded a ROE of 25%. One way to conceptualize this, is that for each £1 of shareholders' equity it has, the company made £0.25 in profit.
How Do I Calculate Return On Equity?
The formula for ROE is:
Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders' Equity
Or for BAE Systems:
25% = UK£1.3b ÷ UK£5.5b (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 earnings retained by the company, plus any capital paid in by shareholders. Shareholders' equity can be calculated by subtracting the total liabilities of the company from the total assets of the company.
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 amount earned after tax over the last twelve months. A higher profit will lead to a higher ROE. So, as a general rule, a high ROE is a good thing. That means ROE can be used to compare two businesses.
Does BAE Systems Have A Good ROE?
One simple way to determine if a company has a good return on equity is to compare it to the average for its industry. The limitation of this approach is that some companies are quite different from others, even within the same industry classification. Pleasingly, BAE Systems has a superior ROE than the average (11%) company in the Aerospace & Defense industry.
That is a good sign. We think a high ROE, alone, is usually enough to justify further research into a company. For example, I often check if insiders have been buying shares .
The Importance Of Debt To 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 and second cases, the ROE will reflect this use of cash for investment in the business. 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 BAE Systems's Debt And Its 25% Return On Equity
BAE Systems has a debt to equity ratio of 0.64, which is far from excessive. When I see a high ROE, fuelled by only modest debt, I suspect the business is high quality. Careful use of debt to boost returns is often very good for shareholders. However, it could reduce the company's ability to take advantage of future opportunities.
The Key Takeaway
Return on equity is one way we can compare the business quality of different companies. In my book the highest quality companies have high return on equity, despite low debt. If two companies have the same ROE, then I would generally prefer the one with less debt.
But ROE is just one piece of a bigger puzzle, since high quality businesses often trade on high multiples of earnings. 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.
Of course, you might find a fantastic investment by looking elsewhere. So take a peek at this free list of interesting companies.
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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.