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Read This Before Judging Downer EDI Limited's (ASX:DOW) ROE

Simply Wall St

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. To keep the lesson grounded in practicality, we'll use ROE to better understand Downer EDI Limited (ASX:DOW).

Our data shows Downer EDI has a return on equity of 9.1% for the last year. One way to conceptualize this, is that for each A$1 of shareholders' equity it has, the company made A$0.09 in profit.

View our latest analysis for Downer EDI

How Do I Calculate ROE?

The formula for return on equity is:

Return on Equity = Net Profit (from continuing operations) ÷ Shareholders' Equity

Or for Downer EDI:

9.1% = AU$276m ÷ AU$3.1b (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 Return On Equity Signify?

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 being equal, a high ROE is better than a low one. Clearly, then, one can use ROE to compare different companies.

Does Downer EDI 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. The limitation of this approach is that some companies are quite different from others, even within the same industry classification. As shown in the graphic below, Downer EDI has a lower ROE than the average (12%) in the Commercial Services industry classification.

ASX:DOW Past Revenue and Net Income, December 30th 2019

That's not what we like to see. We'd prefer see an ROE above the industry average, but it might not matter if the company is undervalued. Nonetheless, it could be useful to double-check if insiders have sold shares recently.

How Does Debt Impact Return On Equity?

Companies usually need to invest money 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 use of debt will improve the returns, but will not change the equity. Thus the use of debt can improve ROE, albeit along with extra risk in the case of stormy weather, metaphorically speaking.

Downer EDI's Debt And Its 9.1% ROE

While Downer EDI does have some debt, with debt to equity of just 0.56, we wouldn't say debt is excessive. Its ROE isn't particularly impressive, but the debt levels are quite modest, so the business probably has some real potential. Conservative use of debt to boost returns is usually a good move for shareholders, though it does leave the company more exposed to interest rate rises.

The Bottom Line On ROE

Return on equity is useful for comparing the quality of different businesses. Companies that can achieve high returns on equity without too much debt are generally of good quality. 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. 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 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.

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. Thank you for reading.