Is Proto Labs, Inc.’s (NYSE:PRLB) 12% ROE Better Than Average?

Many investors are still learning about the various metrics that can be useful when analysing a stock. This article is for those who would like to learn about Return On Equity (ROE). By way of learning-by-doing, we’ll look at ROE to gain a better understanding of Proto Labs, Inc. (NYSE:PRLB).

Over the last twelve months Proto Labs has recorded a ROE of 12%. One way to conceptualize this, is that for each $1 of shareholders’ equity it has, the company made $0.12 in profit.

See our latest analysis for Proto Labs

How Do I Calculate ROE?

The formula for return on equity is:

Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders’ Equity

Or for Proto Labs:

12% = US$68m ÷ US$564m (Based on the trailing twelve months to September 2019.)

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?

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. That means that the higher the ROE, the more profitable the company is. So, all else equal, investors should like a high ROE. Clearly, then, one can use ROE to compare different companies.

Does Proto Labs 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. The limitation of this approach is that some companies are quite different from others, even within the same industry classification. The image below shows that Proto Labs has an ROE that is roughly in line with the Machinery industry average (14%).

NYSE:PRLB Past Revenue and Net Income, November 12th 2019
NYSE:PRLB Past Revenue and Net Income, November 12th 2019

That’s neither particularly good, nor bad. 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. If you like to buy stocks alongside management, then you might just love this free list of companies. (Hint: insiders have been buying them).

The Importance Of Debt To Return On Equity

Most companies need money — from somewhere — to grow their profits. That cash can come from retained earnings, issuing new shares (equity), or debt. In the first two cases, the ROE will capture this use of capital to grow. In the latter case, the debt required for growth will boost returns, but will not impact the shareholders’ equity. That will make the ROE look better than if no debt was used.

Proto Labs’s Debt And Its 12% ROE

Proto Labs is free of net debt, which is a positive for shareholders. Its ROE suggests it is a decent business; and the fact it is not leveraging returns indicates it is well worth watching. After all, when a company has a strong balance sheet, it can often find ways to invest in growth, even if it takes some time.

The Key Takeaway

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. If two companies have the same ROE, then I would generally prefer the one with less debt.

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. 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.

But note: Proto Labs 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.