Should We Be Cautious About Biffa plc’s (LON:BIFF) ROE Of 5.3%?

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 Biffa plc (LON:BIFF).

Biffa has a ROE of 5.3%, based on the last twelve months. One way to conceptualize this, is that for each £1 of shareholders’ equity it has, the company made £0.05 in profit.

See our latest analysis for Biffa

How Do You Calculate ROE?

The formula for ROE is:

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

Or for Biffa:

5.3% = UK£20m ÷ UK£371m (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 the money paid into the company from shareholders, plus any earnings retained. 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?

ROE looks at the amount a company earns relative to the money it has kept within the business. The ‘return’ is the yearly profit. A higher profit will lead to a higher ROE. 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 Biffa 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. However, this method is only useful as a rough check, because companies do differ quite a bit within the same industry classification. As is clear from the image below, Biffa has a lower ROE than the average (9.6%) in the Commercial Services industry.

LSE:BIFF Past Revenue and Net Income, March 8th 2020
LSE:BIFF Past Revenue and Net Income, March 8th 2020

Unfortunately, that’s sub-optimal. We prefer it when the ROE of a company is above the industry average, but it’s not the be-all and end-all if it is lower. Still, shareholders might want to check if insiders have been selling.

Why You Should Consider Debt When Looking At ROE

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 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.

Biffa’s Debt And Its 5.3% ROE

While Biffa does have some debt, with debt to equity of just 0.79, we wouldn’t say debt is excessive. Although the ROE isn’t overly impressive, the debt load is modest, suggesting the business has potential. Judicious use of debt to improve returns can certainly be a good thing, although it does elevate risk slightly and reduce future optionality.

The Key Takeaway

Return on equity is a useful indicator of the ability of a business to generate profits and return them to shareholders. Companies that can achieve high returns on equity without too much debt are generally of good quality. If two companies have the same ROE, then I would generally prefer the one with less debt.

But ROE is just one piece of a bigger puzzle, since high quality businesses often trade on high multiples of earnings. It is important to consider other factors, such as future profit growth — and how much investment is required going forward. So you might want to check this FREE visualization of analyst forecasts for the company.

Of course Biffa 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.

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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