Should You Be Worried About Fonterra Co-operative Group Limited’s (NZSE:FCG) 3.5% Return On Equity?

Want to participate in a short research study? Help shape the future of investing tools and you could win a $250 gift card!

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. We’ll use ROE to examine Fonterra Co-operative Group Limited (NZSE:FCG), by way of a worked example.

Over the last twelve months Fonterra Co-operative Group has recorded a ROE of 3.5%. That means that for every NZ$1 worth of shareholders’ equity, it generated NZ$0.035 in profit.

See our latest analysis for Fonterra Co-operative Group

How Do You Calculate ROE?

The formula for return on equity is:

Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders’ Equity

Or for Fonterra Co-operative Group:

3.5% = NZ$209m ÷ NZ$6.6b (Based on the trailing twelve months to January 2019.)

It’s easy to understand the ‘net profit’ part of that equation, but ‘shareholders’ equity’ requires further explanation. It is the capital paid in by shareholders, plus any retained earnings. You can calculate shareholders’ equity by subtracting the company’s total liabilities from its 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 amount earned after tax over the last twelve months. The higher the ROE, the more profit the company is making. So, all else being equal, a high ROE is better than a low one. That means ROE can be used to compare two businesses.

Does Fonterra Co-operative Group Have A Good ROE?

Arguably the easiest way to assess company’s ROE is to compare it with the average in its industry. 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, Fonterra Co-operative Group has a lower ROE than the average (8.8%) in the Food industry.

NZSE:FCG Past Revenue and Net Income, June 10th 2019
NZSE:FCG Past Revenue and Net Income, June 10th 2019

That’s not what we like to see. It is better when the ROE is above industry average, but a low one doesn’t necessarily mean the business is overpriced. Nonetheless, it could be useful to double-check if insiders have sold shares recently.

Why You Should Consider Debt When Looking At ROE

Virtually all companies need money to invest in the business, to grow profits. That cash can come from issuing shares, retained earnings, or debt. 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 used for growth will improve returns, but won’t affect the total equity. Thus the use of debt can improve ROE, albeit along with extra risk in the case of stormy weather, metaphorically speaking.

Combining Fonterra Co-operative Group’s Debt And Its 3.5% Return On Equity

Fonterra Co-operative Group clearly uses a significant amount of debt to boost returns, as it has a debt to equity ratio of 1.19. The combination of a rather low ROE and significant use of debt is not particularly appealing. 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. 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. Profit growth rates, versus the expectations reflected in the price of the stock, are a particularly important to consider. So I think it may be worth checking this free this detailed graph of past earnings, revenue and cash flow .

But note: Fonterra Co-operative Group may not be the best stock to buy. So take a peek at this free list of interesting companies with 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.