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Why Agilent Technologies, Inc. (NYSE:A) Looks Like A Quality Company

Simply Wall St

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 Agilent Technologies, Inc. (NYSE:A), by way of a worked example.

Our data shows Agilent Technologies has a return on equity of 22% for the last year. One way to conceptualize this, is that for each $1 of shareholders' equity it has, the company made $0.22 in profit.

See our latest analysis for Agilent Technologies

How Do You Calculate ROE?

The formula for ROE is:

Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders' Equity

Or for Agilent Technologies:

22% = US$1.1b ÷ US$5.1b (Based on the trailing twelve months to April 2019.)

Most know that net profit is the total earnings after all expenses, but the concept of shareholders' equity is a little more complicated. It is all earnings retained by the company, plus any capital paid in by shareholders. The easiest way to calculate shareholders' equity is to subtract the company's total liabilities from the 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 yearly profit. 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 ROE can be used to compare two businesses.

Does Agilent Technologies Have A Good Return On Equity?

One simple way to determine if a company has a good return on equity is to compare it to the average for its industry. However, this method is only useful as a rough check, because companies do differ quite a bit within the same industry classification. Pleasingly, Agilent Technologies has a superior ROE than the average (12%) company in the Life Sciences industry.

NYSE:A Past Revenue and Net Income, July 27th 2019

That's clearly a positive. In my book, a high ROE almost always warrants a closer look. For example you might check if insiders are buying shares.

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 debt required for growth will boost returns, but will not impact the shareholders' equity. That will make the ROE look better than if no debt was used.

Agilent Technologies's Debt And Its 22% ROE

While Agilent Technologies does have some debt, with debt to equity of just 0.35, we wouldn't say debt is excessive. The combination of modest debt and a very respectable ROE suggests this is a business worth watching. 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.

In Summary

Return on equity is a useful indicator of the ability of a business to generate profits and return them to shareholders. In my book the highest quality companies have high return on equity, despite low debt. 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. 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.

But note: Agilent Technologies 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.

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.