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. We'll use ROE to examine The York Water Company (NASDAQ:YORW), by way of a worked example.
York Water has a ROE of 11%, based on the last twelve months. That means that for every $1 worth of shareholders' equity, it generated $0.11 in profit.
How Do You Calculate Return On Equity?
The formula for ROE is:
Return on Equity = Net Profit (from continuing operations) ÷ Shareholders' Equity
Or for York Water:
11% = US$15m ÷ US$132m (Based on the trailing twelve months to September 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 the capital paid in by shareholders, plus any retained earnings. The easiest way to calculate shareholders' equity is to subtract the company's total liabilities from the total assets.
What Does ROE Mean?
ROE looks at the amount a company earns relative to the money it has kept within the business. The 'return' is the profit over the last twelve months. A higher profit will lead to a higher ROE. So, all else equal, investors should like a high ROE. That means ROE can be used to compare two businesses.
Does York Water 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. Pleasingly, York Water has a superior ROE than the average (8.9%) company in the Water Utilities industry.
That's clearly a positive. I usually take a closer look when a company has a better ROE than industry peers. For example you might check if insiders are buying shares.
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 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.
York Water's Debt And Its 11% ROE
Although York Water does use debt, its debt to equity ratio of 0.78 is still low. The fact that it achieved a fairly good ROE with only modest debt suggests the business might be worth putting on your watchlist. Judicious use of debt to improve returns can certainly be a good thing, although it does elevate risk slightly and reduce future optionality.
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.
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. It is important to consider other factors, such as future profit growth -- and how much investment is required going forward. So you might want to check this FREE visualization of 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 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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