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. By way of learning-by-doing, we’ll look at ROE to gain a better understanding VSE Corporation (NASDAQ:VSEC).
Our data shows VSE has a return on equity of 13% for the last year. That means that for every $1 worth of shareholders’ equity, it generated $0.13 in profit.
How Do I Calculate ROE?
The formula for ROE is:
Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders’ Equity
Or for VSE:
13% = 43.194 ÷ US$321m (Based on the trailing twelve months to September 2018.)
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. 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 Mean?
ROE looks at the amount a company earns relative to the money it has kept within the business. The ‘return’ is the yearly profit. That means that the higher the ROE, the more profitable the company is. So, all else equal, investors should like a high ROE. That means ROE can be used to compare two businesses.
Does VSE 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. 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 VSE has an ROE that is fairly close to the average for the commercial services industry (13%).
That isn’t amazing, but it is respectable. Of course, this year’s ROE might be a product of last year’s decisions. So I like to check the tenure of the board and CEO, before reaching any conclusions.
The Importance Of Debt To Return On Equity
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 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. That will make the ROE look better than if no debt was used.
Combining VSE’s Debt And Its 13% Return On Equity
Although VSE does use debt, its debt to equity ratio of 0.61 is still low. Its very respectable ROE, combined with only modest debt, suggests the business is in good shape. Judicious use of debt to improve returns can certainly be a good thing, although it does elevate risk slightly and reduce future optionality.
The Key Takeaway
Return on equity is useful for comparing the quality of different businesses. 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 when a business is high quality, the market often bids it up to a price that reflects this. 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 I think it may be worth checking this free this detailed graph of past earnings, revenue and cash flow .
Of course VSE 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.
To help readers see past the short term volatility of the financial market, we aim to bring you a long-term focused research analysis purely driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis does not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements.
The author is an independent contributor and at the time of publication had no position in the stocks mentioned. For errors that warrant correction please contact the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.