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. We'll use ROE to examine Illinois Tool Works Inc. (NYSE:ITW), by way of a worked example.
Illinois Tool Works has a ROE of 80%, based on the last twelve months. That means that for every $1 worth of shareholders' equity, it generated $0.80 in profit.
How Do You Calculate ROE?
The formula for return on equity is:
Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders' Equity
Or for Illinois Tool Works:
80% = US$2.5b ÷ US$3.1b (Based on the trailing twelve months to June 2019.)
It's easy to understand the 'net profit' part of that equation, but 'shareholders' equity' requires further explanation. It is all the money paid into the company from shareholders, plus any earnings retained. 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 yearly profit. That means that the higher the ROE, the more profitable the company is. So, all else being equal, a high ROE is better than a low one. That means ROE can be used to compare two businesses.
Does Illinois Tool Works 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. Importantly, this is far from a perfect measure, because companies differ significantly within the same industry classification. As you can see in the graphic below, Illinois Tool Works has a higher ROE than the average (14%) in the Machinery industry.
That is a good sign. We think a high ROE, alone, is usually enough to justify further research into a company. For example, I often check if insiders have been buying shares .
The Importance Of Debt To Return On Equity
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 debt required for growth will boost returns, but will not impact the shareholders' equity. In this manner the use of debt will boost ROE, even though the core economics of the business stay the same.
Combining Illinois Tool Works's Debt And Its 80% Return On Equity
Illinois Tool Works does use a significant amount of debt to increase returns. It has a debt to equity ratio of 2.52. While the ROE is impressive, that metric has clearly benefited from the company's use of debt. Debt increases risk and reduces options for the company in the future, so you generally want to see some good returns from using it.
But It's Just One Metric
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.
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 you might want to take a peek at this data-rich interactive graph of forecasts for the company.
Of course, you might find a fantastic investment by looking elsewhere. So take a peek at this free list of interesting companies.
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