A Closer Look At ASOS Plc’s (LON:ASC) Uninspiring ROE

One of the best investments we can make is in our own knowledge and skill set. With that in mind, this article will work through how we can use Return On Equity (ROE) to better understand a business. We’ll use ROE to examine ASOS Plc (LON:ASC), by way of a worked example.

ASOS has a ROE of 5.4%, based on the last twelve months. Another way to think of that is that for every £1 worth of equity in the company, it was able to earn £0.05.

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How Do You Calculate ROE?

The formula for ROE is:

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

Or for ASOS:

5.4% = UK£25m ÷ UK£454m (Based on the trailing twelve months to August 2019.)

It’s easy to understand the ‘net profit’ part of that equation, but ‘shareholders’ equity’ requires further explanation. It is all the money paid into the company from shareholders, plus any earnings retained. Shareholders’ equity can be calculated by subtracting the total liabilities of the company from the total assets of the company.

What Does ROE Signify?

ROE looks at the amount a company earns relative to the money it has kept within the business. The ‘return’ is the yearly profit. That means that the higher the ROE, the more profitable the company is. So, as a general rule, a high ROE is a good thing. That means it can be interesting to compare the ROE of different companies.

Does ASOS Have A Good Return On Equity?

By comparing a company’s ROE with its industry average, we can get a quick measure of how good it is. Importantly, this is far from a perfect measure, because companies differ significantly within the same industry classification. As shown in the graphic below, ASOS has a lower ROE than the average (18%) in the Online Retail industry classification.

AIM:ASC Past Revenue and Net Income, February 20th 2020
AIM:ASC Past Revenue and Net Income, February 20th 2020

Unfortunately, that’s sub-optimal. 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

Virtually all companies need money to invest in the business, to grow 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 use of debt will improve the returns, but will not change the equity. That will make the ROE look better than if no debt was used.

ASOS’s Debt And Its 5.4% ROE

Although ASOS does use debt, its debt to equity ratio of 0.20 is still low. I’m not impressed with its ROE, but the debt levels are not too high, indicating the business has decent prospects. Judicious use of debt to improve returns can certainly be a good thing, although it does elevate risk slightly and reduce future optionality.

But It’s Just One Metric

Return on equity is one way we can compare the business quality of different companies. A company that can achieve a high return on equity without debt could be considered a high quality business. If two companies have the same ROE, then I would generally prefer the one with less debt.

Having said that, while ROE is a useful indicator of business quality, you’ll have to look at a whole range of factors to determine the right price to buy a stock. 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, you might find a fantastic investment by looking elsewhere. So take a peek at this free list of interesting companies.

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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