Unilever PLC (LON:ULVR) Earns Among The Best Returns In Its Industry

Today we’ll look at Unilever PLC (LON:ULVR) and reflect on its potential as an investment. Specifically, we’re going to calculate its Return On Capital Employed (ROCE), in the hopes of getting some insight into the business.

First, we’ll go over how we calculate ROCE. Second, we’ll look at its ROCE compared to similar companies. Last but not least, we’ll look at what impact its current liabilities have on its ROCE.

Return On Capital Employed (ROCE): What is it?

ROCE measures the ‘return’ (pre-tax profit) a company generates from capital employed in its business. All else being equal, a better business will have a higher ROCE. In brief, it is a useful tool, but it is not without drawbacks. Renowned investment researcher Michael Mauboussin has suggested that a high ROCE can indicate that ‘one dollar invested in the company generates value of more than one dollar’.

How Do You Calculate Return On Capital Employed?

Analysts use this formula to calculate return on capital employed:

Return on Capital Employed = Earnings Before Interest and Tax (EBIT) ÷ (Total Assets – Current Liabilities)

Or for Unilever:

0.32 = €13b ÷ (€59b – €20b) (Based on the trailing twelve months to December 2018.)

So, Unilever has an ROCE of 32%.

Check out our latest analysis for Unilever

Does Unilever Have A Good ROCE?

ROCE can be useful when making comparisons, such as between similar companies. Unilever’s ROCE appears to be substantially greater than the 14% average in the Personal Products industry. We consider this a positive sign, because it suggests it uses capital more efficiently than similar companies. Setting aside the comparison to its industry for a moment, Unilever’s ROCE in absolute terms currently looks quite high.

As we can see, Unilever currently has an ROCE of 32% compared to its ROCE 3 years ago, which was 23%. This makes us think about whether the company has been reinvesting shrewdly.

LSE:ULVR Past Revenue and Net Income, April 3rd 2019
LSE:ULVR Past Revenue and Net Income, April 3rd 2019

It is important to remember that ROCE shows past performance, and is not necessarily predictive. ROCE can be misleading for companies in cyclical industries, with returns looking impressive during the boom times, but very weak during the busts. This is because ROCE only looks at one year, instead of considering returns across a whole cycle. Future performance is what matters, and you can see analyst predictions in our free report on analyst forecasts for the company.

How Unilever’s Current Liabilities Impact Its ROCE

Liabilities, such as supplier bills and bank overdrafts, are referred to as current liabilities if they need to be paid within 12 months. Due to the way the ROCE equation works, having large bills due in the near term can make it look as though a company has less capital employed, and thus a higher ROCE than usual. To check the impact of this, we calculate if a company has high current liabilities relative to its total assets.

Unilever has total assets of €59b and current liabilities of €20b. Therefore its current liabilities are equivalent to approximately 33% of its total assets. A medium level of current liabilities boosts Unilever’s ROCE somewhat.

The Bottom Line On Unilever’s ROCE

Despite this, it reports a high ROCE, and may be worth investigating further. You might be able to find a better buy than Unilever. If you want a selection of possible winners, check out this free list of interesting companies that trade on a P/E below 20 (but have proven they can grow earnings).

For those who like to find winning investments this free list of growing companies with recent insider purchasing, could be just the ticket.

We aim to bring you long-term focused research analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material.

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.