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 KBR, Inc. (NYSE:KBR), by way of a worked example.
Over the last twelve months KBR has recorded a ROE of 11%. One way to conceptualize this, is that for each $1 of shareholders' equity it has, the company made $0.11 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 KBR:
11% = US$203m ÷ US$1.8b (Based on the trailing twelve months to September 2019.)
It's easy to understand the 'net profit' part of that equation, but 'shareholders' equity' requires further explanation. It is the capital paid in by shareholders, plus any retained earnings. You can calculate shareholders' equity by subtracting the company's total liabilities from its total assets.
What Does ROE Signify?
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 yearly profit. The higher the ROE, the more profit the company is making. So, as a general rule, a high ROE is a good thing. That means ROE can be used to compare two businesses.
Does KBR 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. As is clear from the image below, KBR has a lower ROE than the average (18%) in the IT industry.
Unfortunately, that's sub-optimal. It is better when the ROE is above industry average, but a low one doesn't necessarily mean the business is overpriced. Nonetheless, it might be wise to check if insiders have been selling.
How Does Debt Impact Return On Equity?
Virtually all companies need money to invest in the business, to grow 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 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 KBR's Debt And Its 11% Return On Equity
While KBR does have some debt, with debt to equity of just 0.68, we wouldn't say debt is excessive. The combination of modest debt and a very respectable ROE suggests this is a business worth watching. Judicious use of debt to improve returns can certainly be a good thing, although it does elevate risk slightly and reduce future optionality.
The Key Takeaway
Return on equity is useful for comparing the quality of different businesses. In my book the highest quality companies have high return on equity, despite low debt. 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 when a business is high quality, the market often bids it up to a price that reflects this. 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 you might want to take a peek at this data-rich interactive graph of forecasts for the company.
Of course KBR may not be the best stock to buy. So you may wish to see this free collection of other companies that have high ROE 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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