A Note On AstraZeneca PLC's (LON:AZN) ROE and Debt To Equity

November 07, 2019
  •  Updated
September 30, 2022
LSE:AZN
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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 AstraZeneca PLC (LON:AZN).

Our data shows AstraZeneca has a return on equity of 14% for the last year. That means that for every £1 worth of shareholders' equity, it generated £0.14 in profit.

See our latest analysis for AstraZeneca

How Do You Calculate Return On Equity?

The formula for ROE is:

Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders' Equity

Or for AstraZeneca:

14% = US$2.1b ÷ US$14b (Based on the trailing twelve months to September 2019.)

Most know that net profit is the total earnings after all expenses, but the concept of shareholders' equity is a little more complicated. It is all the money paid into the company from shareholders, plus any earnings retained. You can calculate shareholders' equity by subtracting the company's total liabilities from its total assets.

What Does ROE Mean?

ROE looks at the amount a company earns relative to the money it has kept within the business. The 'return' is the amount earned after tax over the last twelve months. A higher profit will lead to a higher ROE. So, as a general rule, a high ROE is a good thing. Clearly, then, one can use ROE to compare different companies.

Does AstraZeneca Have A Good ROE?

By comparing a company's ROE with its industry average, we can get a quick measure of how good it is. The limitation of this approach is that some companies are quite different from others, even within the same industry classification. You can see in the graphic below that AstraZeneca has an ROE that is fairly close to the average for the Pharmaceuticals industry (12%).

LSE:AZN Past Revenue and Net Income, November 8th 2019
LSE:AZN Past Revenue and Net Income, November 8th 2019

That isn't amazing, but it is respectable. ROE can give us a view about company quality, but many investors also look to other factors, such as whether there are insiders buying shares. I will like AstraZeneca better if I see some big insider buys. While we wait, check out this free list of growing companies with considerable, recent, insider buying.

How Does Debt Impact ROE?

Companies usually need to invest money to grow their profits. The cash for investment can come from prior year profits (retained earnings), issuing new shares, or borrowing. 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 used for growth will improve returns, but won't affect the total equity. In this manner the use of debt will boost ROE, even though the core economics of the business stay the same.

AstraZeneca's Debt And Its 14% ROE

It's worth noting the significant use of debt by AstraZeneca, leading to its debt to equity ratio of 1.43. There's no doubt the ROE is respectable, but it's worth keeping in mind that metric is elevated by 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.

The Bottom Line On ROE

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. All else being equal, a higher ROE is better.

But ROE is just one piece of a bigger puzzle, since high quality businesses often trade on high multiples of earnings. 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 AstraZeneca 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.

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.

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