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Is Proto Labs, Inc.'s (NYSE:PRLB) ROE Of 14% Impressive?

Simply Wall St

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 Proto Labs, Inc. (NYSE:PRLB), by way of a worked example.

Over the last twelve months Proto Labs has recorded a ROE of 14%. Another way to think of that is that for every $1 worth of equity in the company, it was able to earn $0.14.

Check out our latest analysis for Proto Labs

How Do I Calculate Return On Equity?

The formula for ROE is:

Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders' Equity

Or for Proto Labs:

14% = US$77m ÷ US$541m (Based on the trailing twelve months to December 2018.)

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?

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, all else being equal, a high ROE is better than a low one. That means it can be interesting to compare the ROE of different companies.

Does Proto Labs Have A Good ROE?

By comparing a company's ROE with its industry average, we can get a quick measure of how good it is. Importantly, this is far from a perfect measure, because companies differ significantly within the same industry classification. The image below shows that Proto Labs has an ROE that is roughly in line with the Machinery industry average (14%).

NYSE:PRLB Past Revenue and Net Income, April 18th 2019

That's neither particularly good, nor bad. ROE doesn't tell us if the share price is low, but it can inform us to the nature of the business. For those looking for a bargain, other factors may be more important. For those who like to find winning investments this free list of growing companies with recent insider purchasing, could be just the ticket.

Why You Should Consider Debt When Looking At ROE

Companies usually need to invest money to grow their profits. That cash can come from issuing shares, retained earnings, or debt. In the first two cases, the ROE will capture this use of capital to grow. In the latter case, the debt required for growth will boost returns, but will not impact the shareholders' equity. Thus the use of debt can improve ROE, albeit along with extra risk in the case of stormy weather, metaphorically speaking.

Proto Labs's Debt And Its 14% ROE

Proto Labs is free of net debt, which is a positive for shareholders. Its solid ROE indicates a good business, especially when you consider it is not using leverage. At the end of the day, when a company has zero debt, it is in a better position to take future growth 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.

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. Profit growth rates, versus the expectations reflected in the price of the stock, are a particularly important to consider. 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.

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. Thank you for reading.