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. To keep the lesson grounded in practicality, we’ll use ROE to better understand First Data Corporation (NYSE:FDC).
Our data shows First Data has a return on equity of 29% for the last year. One way to conceptualize this, is that for each $1 of shareholders’ equity it has, the company made $0.29 in profit.
How Do I Calculate ROE?
The formula for ROE is:
Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders’ Equity
Or for First Data:
29% = 1791 ÷ US$6.9b (Based on the trailing twelve months to September 2018.)
It’s easy to understand the ‘net profit’ part of that equation, but ‘shareholders’ equity’ requires further explanation. It is all earnings retained by the company, plus any capital paid in by shareholders. Shareholders’ equity can be calculated by subtracting the total liabilities of the company from the total assets of the company.
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 yearly profit. That means that the higher the ROE, the more profitable the company is. 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 First Data 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. As is clear from the image below, First Data has a better ROE than the average (15%) in the it industry.
That’s clearly a positive. I usually take a closer look when a company has a better ROE than industry peers. For example, I often check if insiders have been buying shares .
How Does Debt Impact Return On Equity?
Companies usually need to invest money to grow their profits. That cash can come from issuing shares, retained earnings, 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 use of debt will improve the returns, but will not change the equity. In this manner the use of debt will boost ROE, even though the core economics of the business stay the same.
Combining First Data’s Debt And Its 29% Return On Equity
It’s worth noting the significant use of debt by First Data, leading to its debt to equity ratio of 2.56. I think the ROE is impressive, but it would have been assisted by the use of debt. Debt does bring some extra risk, so it’s only really worthwhile when a company generates some decent returns from it.
But It’s Just One Metric
Return on equity is a useful indicator of the ability of a business to generate profits and return them to shareholders. A company that can achieve a high return on equity without debt could be considered a high quality business. 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. 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 First Data 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.
To help readers see past the short term volatility of the financial market, we aim to bring you a long-term focused research analysis purely driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis does not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements.
The author is an independent contributor and at the time of publication had no position in the stocks mentioned. For errors that warrant correction please contact the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.