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 S&T Holdings Limited (HKG:3928), by way of a worked example.
S&T Holdings has a ROE of 9.3%, based on the last twelve months. One way to conceptualize this, is that for each HK$1 of shareholders' equity it has, the company made HK$0.09 in profit.
How Do You Calculate Return On Equity?
The formula for return on equity is:
Return on Equity = Net Profit (from continuing operations) ÷ Shareholders' Equity
Or for S&T Holdings:
9.3% = S$4.9m ÷ S$52m (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 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 ROE can be used to compare two businesses.
Does S&T Holdings Have A Good ROE?
By comparing a company's ROE with its industry average, we can get a quick measure of how good it is. 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 S&T Holdings has an ROE that is roughly in line with the Construction industry average (11%).
That's not overly surprising. ROE tells us about the quality of the business, but it does not give us much of an idea if the share price is cheap. For those who like to find winning investments this free list of growing companies with recent insider purchasing, could be just the ticket.
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 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.
S&T Holdings's Debt And Its 9.3% ROE
Although S&T Holdings does use debt, its debt to equity ratio of 0.47 is still low. I'm not impressed with its ROE, but the debt levels are not too high, indicating the business has decent prospects. 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. If two companies have around the same level of debt to equity, and one has a higher ROE, I'd generally prefer the one with higher ROE.
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. Check the past profit growth by S&T Holdings by looking at this visualization of past earnings, revenue and cash flow.
If you would prefer check out another company -- one with potentially superior financials -- then do not miss thisfree list of interesting companies, that have HIGH return on equity and low debt.
If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
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