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Should Olympic Steel, Inc.’s (NASDAQ:ZEUS) Weak Investment Returns Worry You?

Willa Russo

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Today we’ll look at Olympic Steel, Inc. (NASDAQ:ZEUS) and reflect on its potential as an investment. Specifically, we’ll consider its Return On Capital Employed (ROCE), since that will give us an insight into how efficiently the business can generate profits from the capital it requires.

First up, we’ll look at what ROCE is and how we calculate it. Next, we’ll compare it to others in its industry. Finally, we’ll look at how its current liabilities affect its ROCE.

Understanding Return On Capital Employed (ROCE)

ROCE measures the ‘return’ (pre-tax profit) a company generates from capital employed in its business. All else being equal, a better business will have a higher ROCE. In brief, it is a useful tool, but it is not without drawbacks. Renowned investment researcher Michael Mauboussin has suggested that a high ROCE can indicate that ‘one dollar invested in the company generates value of more than one dollar’.

So, How Do We Calculate ROCE?

The formula for calculating the return on capital employed is:

Return on Capital Employed = Earnings Before Interest and Tax (EBIT) ÷ (Total Assets – Current Liabilities)

Or for Olympic Steel:

0.09 = US$57m ÷ (US$761m – US$128m) (Based on the trailing twelve months to December 2018.)

Therefore, Olympic Steel has an ROCE of 9.0%.

See our latest analysis for Olympic Steel

Does Olympic Steel Have A Good ROCE?

ROCE can be useful when making comparisons, such as between similar companies. In this analysis, Olympic Steel’s ROCE appears meaningfully below the 11% average reported by the Metals and Mining industry. This performance could be negative if sustained, as it suggests the business may underperform its industry. Separate from how Olympic Steel stacks up against its industry, its ROCE in absolute terms is mediocre; relative to the returns on government bonds. Readers may find more attractive investment prospects elsewhere.

Olympic Steel delivered an ROCE of 9.0%, which is better than 3 years ago, as was making losses back then. That suggests the business has returned to profitability.

NASDAQGS:ZEUS Last Perf February 18th 19

Remember that this metric is backwards looking – it shows what has happened in the past, and does not accurately predict the future. Companies in cyclical industries can be difficult to understand using ROCE, as returns typically look high during boom times, and low during busts. This is because ROCE only looks at one year, instead of considering returns across a whole cycle. Remember that most companies like Olympic Steel are cyclical businesses. Future performance is what matters, and you can see analyst predictions in our free report on analyst forecasts for the company.

What Are Current Liabilities, And How Do They Affect Olympic Steel’s ROCE?

Current liabilities include invoices, such as supplier payments, short-term debt, or a tax bill, that need to be paid within 12 months. The ROCE equation subtracts current liabilities from capital employed, so a company with a lot of current liabilities appears to have less capital employed, and a higher ROCE than otherwise. To counter this, investors can check if a company has high current liabilities relative to total assets.

Olympic Steel has total liabilities of US$128m and total assets of US$761m. Therefore its current liabilities are equivalent to approximately 17% of its total assets. It is good to see a restrained amount of current liabilities, as this limits the effect on ROCE.

The Bottom Line On Olympic Steel’s ROCE

If Olympic Steel continues to earn an uninspiring ROCE, there may be better places to invest. Of course you might be able to find a better stock than Olympic Steel. So you may wish to see this free collection of other companies that have grown earnings strongly.

I will like Olympic Steel better if I see some big insider buys. While we wait, check out this free list of growing companies with considerable, recent, insider buying.

We aim to bring you long-term focused research analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material.

If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at editorial-team@simplywallst.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. On rare occasion, data errors may occur. Thank you for reading.