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 AutoNation, Inc. (NYSE:AN), by way of a worked example.
Return on Equity or ROE is a test of how effectively a company is growing its value and managing investors’ money. Put another way, it reveals the company’s success at turning shareholder investments into profits.
How Is ROE Calculated?
The formula for return on equity is:
Return on Equity = Net Profit (from continuing operations) ÷ Shareholders’ Equity
So, based on the above formula, the ROE for AutoNation is:
9.7% = US$305m ÷ US$3.1b (Based on the trailing twelve months to June 2020).
The ‘return’ is the profit over the last twelve months. One way to conceptualize this is that for each $1 of shareholders’ capital it has, the company made $0.10 in profit.
Does AutoNation Have A Good ROE?
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. If you look at the image below, you can see AutoNation has a lower ROE than the average (15%) in the Specialty Retail industry classification.
Unfortunately, that’s sub-optimal. However, a low ROE is not always bad. If the company’s debt levels are moderate to low, then there’s still a chance that returns can be improved via the use of financial leverage. A company with high debt levels and low ROE is a combination we like to avoid given the risk involved. Our risks dashboard should have the 3 risks we have identified for AutoNation.
The Importance Of Debt To Return On Equity
Virtually all companies need money to invest in the business, to grow profits. That cash can come from retained earnings, issuing new shares (equity), or debt. 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. Thus the use of debt can improve ROE, albeit along with extra risk in the case of stormy weather, metaphorically speaking.
AutoNation’s Debt And Its 9.7% ROE
AutoNation clearly uses a high amount of debt to boost returns, as it has a debt to equity ratio of 1.41. The combination of a rather low ROE and significant use of debt is not particularly appealing. Debt does bring extra risk, so it’s only really worthwhile when a company generates some decent returns from it.
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 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 take a peek at this data-rich interactive graph of forecasts for the company.
Of course AutoNation 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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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. We aim to bring you long-term focused analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material. Simply Wall St has no position in any stocks mentioned.
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