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Should You Be Worried About National Grid plc's (LON:NG.) 7.8% Return On Equity?

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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. To keep the lesson grounded in practicality, we'll use ROE to better understand National Grid plc (LON:NG.).

Our data shows National Grid has a return on equity of 7.8% for the last year. One way to conceptualize this, is that for each £1 of shareholders' equity it has, the company made £0.078 in profit.

See our latest analysis for National Grid

How Do I Calculate Return On Equity?

The formula for return on equity is:

Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders' Equity

Or for National Grid:

7.8% = UK£1.5b ÷ UK£19b (Based on the trailing twelve months to March 2019.)

Most readers would understand what net profit is, but it’s worth explaining the concept of shareholders’ equity. It is the capital paid in by shareholders, plus any retained earnings. Shareholders' equity can be calculated by subtracting the total liabilities of the company from the total assets of the company.

What Does ROE Mean?

ROE looks at the amount a company earns relative to the money it has kept within the business. The 'return' is the yearly profit. The higher the ROE, the more profit the company is making. So, as a general rule, a high ROE is a good thing. Clearly, then, one can use ROE to compare different companies.

Does National Grid Have A Good ROE?

Arguably the easiest way to assess company's ROE is to compare it with the average in its industry. The limitation of this approach is that some companies are quite different from others, even within the same industry classification. As shown in the graphic below, National Grid has a lower ROE than the average (10%) in the Integrated Utilities industry classification.

LSE:NG. Past Revenue and Net Income, July 17th 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.

The Importance Of Debt To 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 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.

National Grid's Debt And Its 7.8% ROE

It's worth noting the significant use of debt by National Grid, leading to its debt to equity ratio of 1.54. The company doesn't have a bad ROE, but it is less than ideal tht it has had to use debt to achieve its returns. Investors should think carefully about how a company might perform if it was unable to borrow so easily, because credit markets do change over time.

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 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. So you might want to check this FREE visualization of analyst forecasts for the company.

Of course National Grid 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.