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 Royal Dutch Shell plc (AMS:RDSA).
Our data shows Royal Dutch Shell has a return on equity of 11% for the last year. That means that for every €1 worth of shareholders' equity, it generated €0.11 in profit.
How Do You Calculate ROE?
The formula for ROE is:
Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders' Equity
Or for Royal Dutch Shell:
11% = US$20b ÷ US$193b (Based on the trailing twelve months to September 2019.)
Most readers would understand what net profit is, but it’s worth explaining the concept of shareholders’ equity. It is all earnings retained by the company, plus any capital paid in by shareholders. You can calculate shareholders' equity by subtracting the company's total liabilities from its total assets.
What Does ROE Mean?
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. The higher the ROE, the more profit the company is making. 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 Royal Dutch Shell Have A Good Return On Equity?
Arguably the easiest way to assess company's ROE is to compare it with the average in its industry. However, this method is only useful as a rough check, because companies do differ quite a bit within the same industry classification. You can see in the graphic below that Royal Dutch Shell has an ROE that is fairly close to the average for the Oil and Gas industry (10%).
That isn't amazing, but it is respectable. ROE can give us a view about company quality, but many investors also look to other factors, such as whether there are insiders buying shares. I will like Royal Dutch Shell better if I see some big insider buys. While we wait, check out this free list of growing companies with considerable, recent, insider buying.
The Importance Of Debt To Return On Equity
Most companies need money -- from somewhere -- to grow their profits. The cash for investment can come from prior year profits (retained earnings), issuing new shares, or borrowing. In the first two cases, the ROE will capture this use of capital to grow. In the latter case, the debt used for growth will improve returns, but won't affect the total equity. In this manner the use of debt will boost ROE, even though the core economics of the business stay the same.
Combining Royal Dutch Shell's Debt And Its 11% Return On Equity
Although Royal Dutch Shell does use debt, its debt to equity ratio of 0.39 is still low. The fact that it achieved a fairly good ROE with only modest debt suggests the business might be worth putting on your watchlist. Judicious use of debt to improve returns can certainly be a good thing, although it does elevate risk slightly and reduce future optionality.
But It's Just One Metric
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 the same ROE, then I would generally prefer the one with less debt.
But ROE is just one piece of a bigger puzzle, since high quality businesses often trade on high multiples of earnings. Profit growth rates, versus the expectations reflected in the price of the stock, are a particularly important to consider. So I think it may be worth checking this free report on analyst forecasts for the company.
But note: Royal Dutch Shell may not be the best stock to buy. So take a peek at this free list of interesting companies with high ROE and low debt.
If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
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