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Is Union Pacific Corporation’s (NYSE:UNP) 16% ROCE Any Good?

Today we'll evaluate Union Pacific Corporation (NYSE:UNP) to determine whether it could have potential as an investment idea. Specifically, we'll consider its Return On Capital Employed (ROCE), since that will give us an insight into how efficiently the business can generate profits from the capital it requires.

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.

What is Return On Capital Employed (ROCE)?

ROCE is a measure of a company's yearly pre-tax profit (its return), relative to the capital employed in the business. Generally speaking a higher ROCE is better. Overall, it is a valuable metric that has its flaws. Renowned investment researcher Michael Mauboussin has suggested that a high ROCE can indicate that 'one dollar invested in the company generates value of more than one dollar'.

So, How Do We Calculate ROCE?

The formula for calculating the return on capital employed is:

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

Or for Union Pacific:

0.16 = US\$8.6b ÷ (US\$59b - US\$4.6b) (Based on the trailing twelve months to December 2018.)

Therefore, Union Pacific has an ROCE of 16%.

Does Union Pacific Have A Good ROCE?

When making comparisons between similar businesses, investors may find ROCE useful. Using our data, we find that Union Pacific's ROCE is meaningfully better than the 11% average in the Transportation industry. I think that's good to see, since it implies the company is better than other companies at making the most of its capital. Separate from Union Pacific's performance relative to its industry, its ROCE in absolute terms looks satisfactory, and it may be worth researching in more depth.

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. This is because ROCE only looks at one year, instead of considering returns across a whole cycle. Future performance is what matters, and you can see analyst predictions in our free report on analyst forecasts for the company.

What Are Current Liabilities, And How Do They Affect Union Pacific's ROCE?

Short term (or current) liabilities, are things like supplier invoices, overdrafts, or tax bills that need to be paid within 12 months. The ROCE equation subtracts current liabilities from capital employed, so a company with a lot of current liabilities appears to have less capital employed, and a higher ROCE than otherwise. To counteract this, we check if a company has high current liabilities, relative to its total assets.

Union Pacific has total liabilities of US\$4.6b and total assets of US\$59b. As a result, its current liabilities are equal to approximately 7.8% of its total assets. Low current liabilities have only a minimal impact on Union Pacific's ROCE, making its decent returns more credible.

What We Can Learn From Union Pacific's ROCE

If it is able to keep this up, Union Pacific could be attractive. Union Pacific looks strong on this analysis, but there are plenty of other companies that could be a good opportunity . Here is a free list of companies growing earnings rapidly.

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.