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The computation of return on equity (ROE) and its implications


What Is Return on Equity (ROE)?

Return on equity (ROE) is a measure of financial performance calculated by dividing net income by shareholders' equity. Because shareholders' equity is equal to a company’s assets minus its debt, ROE is considered the return on net assets.

ROE is considered a gauge of a corporation's profitability and how efficient it is in generating profits. The higher the ROE, the more efficient a company's management is at generating income and growth from its equity financing.

Key Takeaways

  • Return on equity (ROE) is the measure of a company's net income divided by its shareholders' equity.
  • ROE is a gauge of a corporation's profitability and how efficiently it generates those profits.
  • The higher the ROE, the better a company is at converting its equity financing into profits.
  • To calculate ROE, divide net income by the value of shareholders' equity.
  • ROEs will vary based on the industry or sector in which the company operates.

Investopedia / Zoe Hansen

ROE is expressed as a percentage and can be calculated for any company if net income and equity are both positive numbers. Net income is calculated before dividends paid to common shareholders and after dividends to preferred shareholders and interest to lenders.

Return on Equity = Net Income Average Shareholders’ Equity \begin{aligned} &\text{Return on Equity} = \dfrac{\text{Net Income}}{\text{Average Shareholders' Equity}}\\ \end{aligned} Return on Equity=Average Shareholders’ EquityNet Income

Net income is the amount of income, net expenses, and taxes that a company generates for a given period. Average shareholders' equity is calculated by adding equity at the beginning of the period. The beginning and end of the period should coincide with the period during which the net income is earned.

Net income over the last full fiscal year, or trailing 12 months, is found on the income statement—a sum of financial activity over that period. Shareholders' equity comes from the balance sheet—a running balance of a company’s entire history of changes in assets and liabilities.

It is considered best practice to calculate ROE based on average equity over a period because of the mismatch between the income statement and the balance sheet.

Calculating Return on Equity (ROE)

ROE is calculated by comparing the proportion of net income against the amount of shareholder equity. It is calculated as:

ROE = Net Income / Shareholders' Equity

Net income is calculated as the difference between net revenue and all expenses including interest and taxes. It is the most conservative measurement for a company to analyze as it deducts more expenses than other profitability measurements such as gross income or operating income.

Because net income is earned over a period of time and shareholders' equity is a balance sheet account often reporting on a single specific period, an analyst should take an average equity balance. This is often done by taking the average between the beginning balance and ending balance of equity.

What Return on Equity Tells You

Whether an ROE is deemed good or bad will depend on what is normal among a stock’s peers. For example, utilities have many assets and debt on the balance sheet compared to a relatively small amount of net income. A normal ROE in the utility sector could be 10% or less. A technology or retail firm with smaller balance sheet accounts relative to net income may have normal ROE levels of 18% or more.

A good rule of thumb is to target an ROE that is equal to or just above the average for the company's sector—those in the same business. For example, assume a company, TechCo, has maintained a steady ROE of 18% over the past few years compared to the average of its peers, which was 15%. An investor could conclude that TechCo’s management is above average at using the company’s assets to create profits.

Relatively high or low ROE ratios will vary significantly from one industry group or sector to another. Still, a common shortcut for investors is to consider a return on equity near the long-term average of the S&P 500 (as of Q4 2022, 13.29%) as an acceptable ratio and anything less than 10% as poor.

Return on Equity and Stock Performance

Sustainable growth rates and dividend growth rates can be estimated using ROE, assuming that the ratio is roughly in line or just above its peer group average. Although there may be some challenges, ROE can be a good starting place for developing future estimates of a stock’s growth rate and the growth rate of its dividends. These two calculations are functions of each other and can be used to make an easier comparison between similar companies.

To estimate a company’s future growth rate, multiply the ROE by the company’s retention ratio. The retention ratio is the percentage of net income that is retained or reinvested by the company to fund future growth.

21.17%

Companies in the S&P 500 saw an average ROE of 21.17% in 2022.

ROE and a Sustainable Growth Rate

Assume that there are two companies with identical ROEs and net income but different retention ratios. This means they will each have a different sustainable growth rate (SGR). The SGR is the rate a company can grow without having to borrow money to finance that growth. The formula for calculating SGR is ROE times the retention ratio (or ROE times one minus the payout ratio).

For example, Company A has an ROE of 15% and has a retention ratio of 70%. Business B also has an ROE of 15% but has a 90% retention ratio. For Company A, the sustainable growth rate is 10.5% (15% * 70%). Business B's SGR is 13.5% (15% * 90%).

A stock that is growing at a slower rate than its sustainable rate could be undervalued, or the market may be accounting for key risks. In either case, a growth rate that is far above or below the sustainable rate warrants additional investigation.

Using Return on Equity to Identify Problems

It's reasonable to wonder why an average or slightly above-average ROE is preferable rather than an ROE that is double, triple, or even higher than the average of its peer group. Aren’t stocks with a very high ROE a better value?

Sometimes an extremely high ROE is a good thing if net income is extremely large compared to equity because a company’s performance is so strong. However, an extremely high ROE is often due to a small equity account compared to net income, which indicates risk.

Inconsistent Profits

The first potential issue with a high ROE could be inconsistent profits. Imagine that a company, LossCo, has been unprofitable for several years. Each year’s losses are recorded on the balance sheet in the equity portion as a “retained loss.” These losses are a negative value and reduce shareholders' equity.

Now, assume that LossCo has had a windfall in the most recent year and has returned to profitability. The denominator in the ROE calculation is now very small after many years of losses, which makes its ROE misleadingly high.

Excess Debt

A second issue that could cause a high ROE is excess debt. If a company has been borrowing aggressively, it can increase ROE because equity is equal to assets minus debt. The more debt a company has, the lower equity can fall. A common scenario is when a company borrows large amounts of debt to buy back its own stock. This can inflate earnings per share (EPS), but it does not affect actual performance or growth rates.

Negative Net Income

Finally, negative net income and negative shareholders' equity can create an artificially high ROE. However, if a company has a net loss or negative shareholders’ equity, ROE should not be calculated.

If shareholders’ equity is negative, the most common issue is excessive debt or inconsistent profitability. However, there are exceptions to that rule for companies that are profitable and have been using cash flow to buy back their own shares. For many companies, this is an alternative to paying dividends, and it can eventually reduce equity (buybacks are subtracted from equity) enough to turn the calculation negative.

In all cases, negative or extremely high ROE levels should be considered a warning sign worth investigating. In rare cases, a negative ROE ratio could be due to a cash flow-supported share buyback program and excellent management, but this is the less likely outcome. In any case, a company with a negative ROE cannot be evaluated against other stocks with positive ROE ratios.

Limitations of Return on Equity

A high ROE might not always be positive. An outsize ROE can be indicative of a number of issues—such as inconsistent profits or excessive debt. ROE that widely changes from one period to the next may also be an indicator of inconsistent use of accounting methods.

A negative ROE due to the company having a net loss or negative shareholders’ equity cannot be used to analyze the company, nor can it be used to compare against companies with a positive ROE. The term ROE is a misnomer in this situation as there is no return; the more appropriate classification is to consider what the loss is on equity.

ROE often can't be used to compare different companies in differing industries. ROE varies across sectors, especially as companies have different operating margins and financing structures. In addition, larger companies with greater efficiency may not be comparable to younger firms.

As with all tools used for investment analysis, ROE is just one of many available metrics that identifies just one portion of a firm's overall financials. It is crucial to utilize a combination of financial metrics to get a full understanding of a company's financial health before investing.

Return on Equity vs. Return on Invested Capital

Though ROE looks at how much profit a company can generate relative to shareholders’ equity, return on invested capital (ROIC) takes that calculation a couple of steps further.

The purpose of ROIC is to figure out the amount of money after dividends a company makes based on all its sources of capital, which includes shareholders' equity and debt. ROE looks at how well a company uses shareholders' equity while ROIC is meant to determine how well a company uses all its available capital to make money.

Example of Return on Equity

Amazon, Google, and Apple are all industry leaders in their field. To compare which company may be better at earning income based off shareholder investment, you can turn to each company's publicly issued financial statements. For this exercise, we'll look at each of the following financials:

  • Alphabet's fiscal year 2022 results reported on Feb. 2, 2023
  • Amazon's fiscal year 2022 results reported on Feb. 2, 2023
  • Apple's fiscal year 2022 results reported on Oct. 27, 2022
Alphabet, Amazon, and Apple ROE Calculations
Financial Account  Alphabet Amazon Apple
Beginning Shareholder Equity $251.635  $138.245 $63.090 
 Ending Shareholder Equity  $256.144 $146.043   $50.672
Average Shareholder Equity   $253.890  $142.144  $56.881
Net Income $59.972 ($2.722) $99.803
ROE Formula   $59.972 / $253.890  ($2.722)/$142.144 $99.803/$56.881
ROE 23.62% -1.91% 175.46%
Relevant Financial Information, Dollars in Billions

Each company's ROE tells a different story. Alphabet's ROE of 23.62% falls very close to the respectable range mentioned early. Amazon's ROE, however, is negative due to the company's unprofitable year in 2022; be mindful to take consideration when analyzing negative ROE.

Meanwhile, Apple's financial structure and heavy reliance on debt means it can boast a very high ROE. At the end of fiscal year 2022, Apple had nearly six times as much debt as it did equity. Therefore, it is not surprising the company is able to generate high profits compared to its equity because its equity was not high.

How to Calculate ROE Using Excel

The formula for calculating a company's ROE is its net income divided by shareholders' equity. Here's how to use Microsoft Excel to set up the calculation for ROE:

  • In Excel, get started by right-clicking on column A. Next, move the cursor down and left-click on column width. Then, change the column width value to 30 default units and click OK. Repeat this procedure for columns B and C.
  • Next, enter the name of a company into cell B1 and the name of another company into cell C1.
  • Then, enter "Net Income" into cell A2, "Shareholders' Equity" into cell A3, and "Return on Equity" into cell A4.
  • Enter the formula for "Return on Equity" =B2/B3 into cell B4 and enter the formula =C2/C3 into cell C4.
  • When that is complete, enter the corresponding values for "Net Income" and "Shareholders' Equity" into cells B2, B3, C2, and C3.

ROE and DuPont Analysis

Though ROE can easily be computed by dividing net income by shareholders' equity, a technique called DuPont decomposition can break down the ROE calculation into additional steps. Created by the American chemicals corporation DuPont in the 1920s, this analysis reveals which factors are contributing the most (or the least) to a firm's ROE.

There are two versions of DuPont analysis. The first involves three steps:

ROE = NPM × Asset Turnover × Equity Multiplier where: NPM = Net profit margin, the measure of operating efficiency Asset Turnover = Measure of asset use efficiency Equity Multiplier = Measure of financial leverage \begin{aligned} &\text{ROE} = \text{NPM} \times \text{Asset Turnover} \times \text{Equity Multiplier} \\ &\textbf{where:} \\ &\text{NPM} = \text{Net profit margin, the measure of operating} \\ &\text{efficiency} \\ &\text{Asset Turnover} = \text{Measure of asset use efficiency} \\ &\text{Equity Multiplier} = \text{Measure of financial leverage} \\ \end{aligned} ROE=NPM×Asset Turnover×Equity Multiplierwhere:NPM=Net profit margin, the measure of operatingefficiencyAsset Turnover=Measure of asset use efficiencyEquity Multiplier=Measure of financial leverage

​Alternatively, the five-step version is as follows:

ROE = EBT S × S A × A E × ( 1 TR ) where: EBT = Earnings before tax S = Sales A = Assets E = Equity TR = Tax rate \begin{aligned} &\text{ROE} = \frac{ \text{EBT} }{ \text{S} } \times \frac{ \text{S} }{ \text{A} } \times \frac{ \text{A} }{ \text{E} } \times ( 1 - \text{TR} ) \\ &\textbf{where:} \\ &\text{EBT} = \text{Earnings before tax} \\ &\text{S} = \text{Sales} \\ &\text{A} = \text{Assets} \\ &\text{E} = \text{Equity} \\ &\text{TR} = \text{Tax rate} \\ \end{aligned} ROE=SEBT×AS×EA×(1TR)where:EBT=Earnings before taxS=SalesA=AssetsE=EquityTR=Tax rate

Both the three- and five-step equations provide a deeper understanding of a company's ROE by examining what is changing in a company rather than looking at one simple ratio. As always with financial statement ratios, they should be examined against the company's history and its competitors' histories.

For example, when looking at two peer companies, one may have a lower ROE. With the five-step equation, you can see if this is lower because creditors perceive the company as riskier and charge it higher interest, the company is poorly managed and has leverage that is too low, or the company has higher costs that decrease its operating profit margin. Identifying sources like these leads to a better knowledge of the company and how it should be valued.

What Is a Good ROE?

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As with most other performance metrics, what counts as a “good” ROE will depend on the company’s industry and competitors. Though the long-term ROE for the top ten S&P 500 companies has averaged around 18.6%, specific industries can be significantly higher or lower. All else being equal, an industry will likely have a lower average ROE if it is highly competitive and requires substantial assets in order to generate revenues. On the other hand, industries with relatively few players and where only limited assets are needed to generate revenues may show a higher average ROE.

How Do You Calculate ROE?

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To calculate ROE, analysts simply divide the company’s net income by its average shareholders’ equity. Because shareholders’ equity is equal to assets minus liabilities, ROE is essentially a measure of the return generated on the net assets of the company. Since the equity figure can fluctuate during the accounting period in question, an average shareholders’ equity is used.

What Is the Difference Between Return on Assets (ROA) and ROE?

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Return on assets (ROA) and ROE are similar in that they are both trying to gauge how efficiently the company generates its profits. However, whereas ROE compares net income to the net assets of the company, ROA compares net income to the company’s assets alone, without deducting its liabilities. In both cases, companies in industries in which operations require significant assets will likely show a lower average return.

What Happens If ROE Is Negative?

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If a company's ROE is negative, it means that there was negative net income for the period in question (i.e., a loss). This implies that shareholders are losing on their investment in the company. For new and growing companies, a negative ROE is often to be expected; however, if negative ROE persists it can be a sign of trouble.

What Causes ROE to Increase?

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ROE will increase as net income increases, all else equal. Another way to boost ROE is to reduce the value of shareholders' equity. Since equity is equal to assets minus liabilities, increasing liabilities (e.g., taking on more debt financing) is one way to artificially boost ROE without necessarily increasing profitability. This can be amplified if that debt is used to engage in share buybacks, effectively reducing the amount of equity available.

The Bottom Line

Return on equity is a common financial metric that compares how much income a company made compared to its total shareholders' equity. Another useful calculation is the return on average equity (ROAE). However, though ROE and ROAE can tell you how well a company is using resources to generate profit, it does not consider a company's entire financing structure, industry, or performance against competition without further analysis.

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