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. By way of learning-by-doing, we'll look at ROE to gain a better understanding of International Business Machines Corporation (NYSE:IBM).
Over the last twelve months International Business Machines has recorded a ROE of 49%. Another way to think of that is that for every $1 worth of equity in the company, it was able to earn $0.49.
How Do I Calculate ROE?
The formula for return on equity is:
Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders' Equity
Or for International Business Machines:
49% = US$8.7b ÷ US$18b (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 the money paid into the company from shareholders, plus any earnings retained. Shareholders' equity can be calculated by subtracting the total liabilities of the company from the total assets of the company.
What Does ROE Signify?
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. Clearly, then, one can use ROE to compare different companies.
Does International Business Machines Have A Good Return On Equity?
By comparing a company's ROE with its industry average, we can get a quick measure of how good it is. The limitation of this approach is that some companies are quite different from others, even within the same industry classification. As you can see in the graphic below, International Business Machines has a higher ROE than the average (16%) in the IT industry.
That's what I like to see. In my book, a high ROE almost always warrants a closer look. 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. 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 required for growth will boost returns, but will not impact the shareholders' equity. In this manner the use of debt will boost ROE, even though the core economics of the business stay the same.
Combining International Business Machines's Debt And Its 49% Return On Equity
It appears that International Business Machines makes extensive use of debt to improve its returns, because it has a relatively high debt to equity ratio of 4.11. So although the company has an impressive ROE, that figure would be a lot lower without the use of debt.
But It's Just One Metric
Return on equity is a useful indicator of the ability of a business to generate profits and return them to shareholders. A company that can achieve a high return on equity without debt could be considered a high quality business. 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. 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 take a peek at this data-rich interactive graph of forecasts for the company.
If you would prefer check out another company -- one with potentially superior financials -- then do not miss this free list of interesting companies, that have HIGH return on equity and low debt.
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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. Thank you for reading.