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Are South32 Limited’s (ASX:S32) Returns Worth Your While?

Simply Wall St

Today we'll evaluate South32 Limited (ASX:S32) to determine whether it could have potential as an investment idea. In particular, we'll consider its Return On Capital Employed (ROCE), as that can give us insight into how profitably the company is able to employ capital in its business.

First up, we'll look at what ROCE is and how we calculate it. Then we'll compare its ROCE to similar companies. And finally, we'll look at how its current liabilities are impacting its ROCE.

Return On Capital Employed (ROCE): What is it?

ROCE measures the amount of pre-tax profits a company can generate from the capital employed in its business. Generally speaking a higher ROCE is better. Overall, it is a valuable metric that has its flaws. Author Edwin Whiting says to be careful when comparing the ROCE of different businesses, since 'No two businesses are exactly alike.'

So, How Do We Calculate ROCE?

Analysts use this formula to calculate return on capital employed:

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

Or for South32:

0.099 = US$1.3b ÷ (US$15b - US$1.6b) (Based on the trailing twelve months to December 2018.)

So, South32 has an ROCE of 9.9%.

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Is South32's ROCE Good?

When making comparisons between similar businesses, investors may find ROCE useful. Using our data, South32's ROCE appears to be around the 9.5% average of the Metals and Mining industry. Aside from the industry comparison, South32's ROCE is mediocre in absolute terms, considering the risk of investing in stocks versus the safety of a bank account. Readers may find more attractive investment prospects elsewhere.

Our data shows that South32 currently has an ROCE of 9.9%, compared to its ROCE of 2.2% 3 years ago. This makes us think the business might be improving.

ASX:S32 Past Revenue and Net Income, May 24th 2019

When considering this metric, keep in mind that it is backwards looking, and not necessarily predictive. ROCE can be misleading for companies in cyclical industries, with returns looking impressive during the boom times, but very weak during the busts. ROCE is, after all, simply a snap shot of a single year. Remember that most companies like South32 are cyclical businesses. Since the future is so important for investors, you should check out our free report on analyst forecasts for South32.

South32's Current Liabilities And Their Impact On Its ROCE

Liabilities, such as supplier bills and bank overdrafts, are referred to as current liabilities if they need to be paid within 12 months. Due to the way ROCE is calculated, a high level of current liabilities makes a company look as though it has less capital employed, and thus can (sometimes unfairly) boost the ROCE. To counter this, investors can check if a company has high current liabilities relative to total assets.

South32 has total liabilities of US$1.6b and total assets of US$15b. As a result, its current liabilities are equal to approximately 10% of its total assets. This is a modest level of current liabilities, which would only have a small effect on ROCE.

Our Take On South32's ROCE

If South32 continues to earn an uninspiring ROCE, there may be better places to invest. But note: make sure you look for a great company, not just the first idea you come across. So take a peek at this free list of interesting companies with strong recent earnings growth (and a P/E ratio below 20).

For those who like to find winning investments this free list of growing companies with recent insider purchasing, could be just the ticket.

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.