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Read This Before Judging NiSource Inc.'s (NYSE:NI) ROE

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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 NiSource Inc. (NYSE:NI), by way of a worked example.

Over the last twelve months NiSource has recorded a ROE of 2.8%. Another way to think of that is that for every $1 worth of equity in the company, it was able to earn $0.028.

See our latest analysis for NiSource

How Do You Calculate Return On Equity?

The formula for return on equity is:

Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders' Equity

Or for NiSource:

2.8% = US$123m ÷ US$6.0b (Based on the trailing twelve months to June 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. The easiest way to calculate shareholders' equity is to subtract the company's total liabilities from the 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 profit over the last twelve months. That means that the higher the ROE, the more profitable the company is. So, all else equal, investors should like a high ROE. That means ROE can be used to compare two businesses.

Does NiSource 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 is clear from the image below, NiSource has a lower ROE than the average (10%) in the Integrated Utilities industry.

NYSE:NI Past Revenue and Net Income, August 13th 2019
NYSE:NI Past Revenue and Net Income, August 13th 2019

Unfortunately, that's sub-optimal. We'd prefer see an ROE above the industry average, but it might not matter if the company is undervalued. Nonetheless, it might be wise to check if insiders have been selling.

The Importance Of Debt To 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 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.

NiSource's Debt And Its 2.8% ROE

NiSource clearly uses a significant amount of debt to boost returns, as it has a debt to equity ratio of 1.52. The combination of a rather low ROE and significant use of debt is not particularly appealing. Investors should think carefully about how a company might perform if it was unable to borrow so easily, because credit markets do change over time.

In Summary

Return on equity is a useful indicator of the ability of a business to generate profits and return them to shareholders. Companies that can achieve high returns on equity without too much debt are generally of good quality. 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. 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 check this FREE visualization of analyst forecasts for the company.

Of course NiSource 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.

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.