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Should You Be Worried About FutureFuel Corp.'s (NYSE:FF) 4.4% Return On Equity?

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). We'll use ROE to examine FutureFuel Corp. (NYSE:FF), by way of a worked example.

FutureFuel has a ROE of 4.4%, based on the last twelve months. That means that for every $1 worth of shareholders' equity, it generated $0.04 in profit.

See our latest analysis for FutureFuel

How Do You Calculate Return On Equity?

The formula for ROE is:

Return on Equity = Net Profit (from continuing operations) ÷ Shareholders' Equity

Or for FutureFuel:

4.4% = US$18m ÷ US$405m (Based on the trailing twelve months to September 2019.)

It's easy to understand the 'net profit' part of that equation, but 'shareholders' equity' requires further explanation. 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 Return On Equity Mean?

ROE looks at the amount a company earns relative to the money it has kept within the business. The 'return' is the amount earned after tax over the last twelve months. That means that the higher the ROE, the more profitable the company is. 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 FutureFuel 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. Importantly, this is far from a perfect measure, because companies differ significantly within the same industry classification. As shown in the graphic below, FutureFuel has a lower ROE than the average (13%) in the Chemicals industry classification.

NYSE:FF Past Revenue and Net Income, December 31st 2019

That certainly isn't ideal. It is better when the ROE is above industry average, but a low one doesn't necessarily mean the business is overpriced. Nonetheless, it could be useful to double-check if insiders have sold shares recently.

How Does Debt Impact Return On Equity?

Companies usually need to invest money to grow their profits. The cash for investment can come from prior year profits (retained earnings), issuing new shares, or borrowing. In the first and second cases, the ROE will reflect this use of cash for investment in the business. In the latter case, the debt used for growth will improve returns, but won't affect the total equity. That will make the ROE look better than if no debt was used.

Combining FutureFuel's Debt And Its 4.4% Return On Equity

FutureFuel is free of net debt, which is a positive for shareholders. Even though I don't think its ROE is that great, I think it's very respectable when you consider it has no debt. After all, when a company has a strong balance sheet, it can often find ways to invest in growth, even if it takes some time.

The Bottom Line On ROE

Return on equity is useful for comparing the quality of different businesses. A company that can achieve a high return on equity without debt could be considered a high quality business. If two companies have around the same level of debt to equity, and one has a higher ROE, I'd generally prefer the one with higher ROE.

But ROE is just one piece of a bigger puzzle, since high quality businesses often trade on high multiples of earnings. The rate at which profits are likely to grow, relative to the expectations of profit growth reflected in the current price, must be considered, too. Check the past profit growth by FutureFuel by looking at this visualization of past earnings, revenue and cash flow.

If you would prefer check out another company -- one with potentially superior financials -- then do not miss thisfree list of interesting companies, that have HIGH return on equity and low debt.

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.

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