A Closer Look At Lithia Motors, Inc.’s (NYSE:LAD) Impressive ROE

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 Lithia Motors, Inc. (NYSE:LAD), by way of a worked example.

Lithia Motors has a ROE of 21%, based on the last twelve months. One way to conceptualize this, is that for each $1 of shareholders’ equity it has, the company made $0.21 in profit.

Check out our latest analysis for Lithia Motors

How Do I Calculate Return On Equity?

The formula for return on equity is:

Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders’ Equity

Or for Lithia Motors:

21% = US$271m ÷ US$1.3b (Based on the trailing twelve months to June 2019.)

It’s easy to understand the ‘net profit’ part of that equation, but ‘shareholders’ equity’ requires further explanation. 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 Signify?

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 profit over the last twelve months. A higher profit will lead to a higher ROE. So, all else equal, investors should like a high ROE. Clearly, then, one can use ROE to compare different companies.

Does Lithia Motors Have A Good Return On Equity?

Arguably the easiest way to assess company’s ROE is to compare it with the average in its industry. Importantly, this is far from a perfect measure, because companies differ significantly within the same industry classification. Pleasingly, Lithia Motors has a superior ROE than the average (13%) company in the Specialty Retail industry.

NYSE:LAD Past Revenue and Net Income, September 4th 2019
NYSE:LAD Past Revenue and Net Income, September 4th 2019

That is a good sign. In my book, a high ROE almost always warrants a closer look. For example, I often check if insiders have been buying shares .

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 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. Thus the use of debt can improve ROE, albeit along with extra risk in the case of stormy weather, metaphorically speaking.

Lithia Motors’s Debt And Its 21% ROE

It’s worth noting the significant use of debt by Lithia Motors, leading to its debt to equity ratio of 2.70. Its ROE is quite good but, it would have probably been lower without the use of debt. 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.

In Summary

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. 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 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 I think it may be worth checking this free report on analyst forecasts for the company.

Of course Lithia Motors 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.

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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.