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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. We’ll use ROE to examine Graham Holdings Company (NYSE:GHC), by way of a worked example.
Graham Holdings has a ROE of 10%, based on the last twelve months. Another way to think of that is that for every $1 worth of equity in the company, it was able to earn $0.10.
How Do You Calculate Return On Equity?
The formula for return on equity is:
Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders’ Equity
Or for Graham Holdings:
10% = US$308m ÷ US$3.0b (Based on the trailing twelve months to March 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 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, all else equal, investors should like a high ROE. That means it can be interesting to compare the ROE of different companies.
Does Graham Holdings 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 Graham Holdings has an ROE that is fairly close to the average for the Consumer Services industry (13%).
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. For those who like to find winning investments this free list of growing companies with recent insider purchasing, could be just the ticket.
How Does Debt Impact Return On Equity?
Companies usually need to invest money to grow their profits. That cash can come from issuing shares, retained earnings, or debt. 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 required for growth will boost returns, but will not impact the shareholders’ equity. Thus the use of debt can improve ROE, albeit along with extra risk in the case of stormy weather, metaphorically speaking.
Graham Holdings’s Debt And Its 10% ROE
While Graham Holdings does have some debt, with debt to equity of just 0.32, we wouldn’t say debt is excessive. Although the ROE isn’t overly impressive, the debt load is modest, suggesting the business has potential. Conservative use of debt to boost returns is usually a good move for shareholders, though it does leave the company more exposed to interest rate rises.
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. 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. 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 .
If you would prefer check out another company — one with potentially superior financials — then do not miss this free list of interesting companies, that have HIGH return on equity 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 email@example.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.