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 Unitil Corporation (NYSE:UTL), by way of a worked example.
Over the last twelve months Unitil has recorded a ROE of 12%. One way to conceptualize this, is that for each $1 of shareholders’ equity it has, the company made $0.12 in profit.
See our latest analysis for Unitil
How Do You Calculate ROE?
The formula for ROE is:
Return on Equity = Net Profit (from continuing operations) ÷ Shareholders’ Equity
Or for Unitil:
12% = US$44m ÷ US$377m (Based on the trailing twelve months to December 2019.)
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. Shareholders’ equity can be calculated by subtracting the total liabilities of the company from the total assets of the company.
What Does ROE Mean?
ROE measures a company’s profitability against the profit it retains, and any outside investments. The ‘return’ is the amount earned after tax over the last twelve months. 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 it can be interesting to compare the ROE of different companies.
Does Unitil Have A Good Return On Equity?
By comparing a company’s ROE with its industry average, we can get a quick measure of how good it is. However, this method is only useful as a rough check, because companies do differ quite a bit within the same industry classification. The image below shows that Unitil has an ROE that is roughly in line with the Integrated Utilities industry average (9.9%).
That’s not overly surprising. 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. If you like to buy stocks alongside management, then you might just love this free list of companies. (Hint: insiders have been buying them).
Why You Should Consider Debt When Looking At 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 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. In this manner the use of debt will boost ROE, even though the core economics of the business stay the same.
Combining Unitil’s Debt And Its 12% Return On Equity
Unitil does use a significant amount of debt to increase returns. It has a debt to equity ratio of 1.37. There’s no doubt the ROE is respectable, but it’s worth keeping in mind that metric is elevated by the use of debt. Debt does bring extra risk, so it’s only really worthwhile when a company generates some decent returns from it.
The Key Takeaway
Return on equity is one way we can compare the business quality of different companies. A company that can achieve a high return on equity without debt could be considered a high quality business. 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. 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 you might want to take a peek at this data-rich interactive graph of forecasts for the company.
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.
If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at [email protected] 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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