With A Return On Equity Of 14%, Has Graham Holdings Company’s (NYSE:GHC) Management Done Well?

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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 of Graham Holdings Company (NYSE:GHC).

Over the last twelve months Graham Holdings has recorded a ROE of 14%. One way to conceptualize this, is that for each $1 of shareholders’ equity it has, the company made $0.14 in profit.

View our latest analysis for Graham Holdings

How Do You Calculate ROE?

The formula for return on equity is:

Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders’ Equity

Or for Graham Holdings:

14% = 425.267 ÷ US$3.0b (Based on the trailing twelve months to September 2018.)

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 ROE Mean?

Return on Equity measures a company’s profitability against the profit it has kept for the business (plus any capital injections). The ‘return’ is the amount earned after tax over the last twelve months. 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 Graham Holdings Have A Good ROE?

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. 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 (12%).

NYSE:GHC Last Perf February 5th 19
NYSE:GHC Last Perf February 5th 19

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. 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 ROE?

Most companies need money — from somewhere — to grow their profits. The cash for investment can come from prior year profits (retained earnings), issuing new shares, or borrowing. In the case of the first and second options, the ROE will reflect this use of cash, for growth. In the latter case, the use of debt will improve the returns, but will not change the equity. In this manner the use of debt will boost ROE, even though the core economics of the business stay the same.

Graham Holdings’s Debt And Its 14% ROE

Although Graham Holdings does use debt, its debt to equity ratio of 0.16 is still low. The fact that it achieved a fairly good ROE with only modest debt suggests the business might be worth putting on your watchlist. 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 Bottom Line On ROE

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. You can see how the company has grow in the past by looking at this FREE detailed graph of past earnings, revenue and cash flow.

But note: Graham Holdings 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.

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 editorial-team@simplywallst.com.