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Why W.W. Grainger, Inc. (NYSE:GWW) Looks Like A Quality Company

Simply Wall St

Many investors are still learning about the various metrics that can be useful when analysing a stock. This article is for those who would like to learn about Return On Equity (ROE). By way of learning-by-doing, we'll look at ROE to gain a better understanding of W.W. Grainger, Inc. (NYSE:GWW).

Our data shows W.W. Grainger has a return on equity of 39% for the last year. One way to conceptualize this, is that for each $1 of shareholders' equity it has, the company made $0.39 in profit.

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See our latest analysis for W.W. Grainger

How Do I Calculate ROE?

The formula for ROE is:

Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders' Equity

Or for W.W. Grainger:

39% = US$796m ÷ US$2.2b (Based on the trailing twelve months to March 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 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 Return On Equity Mean?

ROE measures a company's profitability against the profit it retains, and any outside investments. The 'return' is the yearly profit. The higher the ROE, the more profit the company is making. So, all else equal, investors should like a high ROE. Clearly, then, one can use ROE to compare different companies.

Does W.W. Grainger Have A Good ROE?

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. As is clear from the image below, W.W. Grainger has a better ROE than the average (11%) in the Trade Distributors industry.

NYSE:GWW Past Revenue and Net Income, May 21st 2019

That is a good sign. I usually take a closer look when a company has a better ROE than industry peers. For example, I often check if insiders have been buying shares .

Why You Should Consider Debt When Looking At ROE

Companies usually need to invest money to grow their profits. That cash can come from issuing shares, retained earnings, or debt. In the first and second cases, the ROE will reflect this use of cash for investment in the business. In the latter case, the use of debt will improve the returns, but will not change the equity. In this manner the use of debt will boost ROE, even though the core economics of the business stay the same.

Combining W.W. Grainger's Debt And Its 39% Return On Equity

It's worth noting the significant use of debt by W.W. Grainger, leading to its debt to equity ratio of 1.12. While the ROE is impressive, that metric has clearly benefited from the company's use of debt. Debt does bring extra risk, so it's only really worthwhile when a company generates some decent returns from it.

But It's Just One Metric

Return on equity is one way we can compare the business quality of different companies. In my book the highest quality companies have high return on equity, despite low debt. All else being equal, a higher ROE is better.

But when a business is high quality, the market often bids it up to a price that reflects this. 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 take a peek at this data-rich interactive graph of forecasts for the company.

Of course W.W. Grainger 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.