Should We Be Delighted With W.W. Grainger, Inc.’s (NYSE:GWW) ROE Of 39%?

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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 W.W. Grainger, Inc. (NYSE:GWW).

Our data shows W.W. Grainger has a return on equity of 39% for the last year. Another way to think of that is that for every $1 worth of equity in the company, it was able to earn $0.39.

View our latest analysis for W.W. Grainger

How Do I Calculate ROE?

The formula for ROE is:

Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders’ Equity

Or for W.W. Grainger:

39% = US$796m ÷ US$2.2b (Based on the trailing twelve months to March 2019.)

Most readers would understand what net profit is, but it’s worth explaining the concept of shareholders’ equity. It is the capital paid in by shareholders, plus any retained earnings. 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 measures a company’s profitability against the profit it retains, and any outside investments. The ‘return’ is the yearly profit. 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 W.W. Grainger Have A Good Return On Equity?

One simple way to determine if a company has a good return on equity is to compare it to the average for 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, W.W. Grainger has a better ROE than the average (11%) in the Trade Distributors industry.

NYSE:GWW Past Revenue and Net Income, June 16th 2019
NYSE:GWW Past Revenue and Net Income, June 16th 2019

That’s clearly a positive. In my book, a high ROE almost always warrants a closer look. One data point to check is if insiders have bought shares recently.

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 two cases, the ROE will capture this use of capital to grow. In the latter case, the debt used for growth will improve returns, but won’t affect the total equity. That will make the ROE look better than if no debt was used.

W.W. Grainger’s Debt And Its 39% ROE

W.W. Grainger clearly uses a significant amount of debt to boost returns, as it has a debt to equity ratio of 1.03. While the ROE is impressive, that metric has clearly benefited from the company’s use of debt. Debt does bring extra risk, so it’s only really worthwhile when a company generates some decent returns from it.

In Summary

Return on equity is useful for comparing the quality of different businesses. In my book the highest quality companies have high return on equity, despite low debt. All else being equal, a higher ROE is better.

Having said that, while ROE is a useful indicator of business quality, you’ll have to look at a whole range of factors to determine the right price to buy a stock. 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 check this FREE visualization of analyst forecasts for the company.

Of course, you might find a fantastic investment by looking elsewhere. So take a peek at this free list of interesting companies.

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.