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 measure of a corporation's profitability in relation to stockholders’ equity.

Key Takeaways

  • Return on equity (ROE) measures a corporation's profitability in relation to stockholders’ equity.
  • Whether an ROE is considered satisfactory will depend on what is normal for the industry or company peers.
  • As a shortcut, investors can consider an ROE near the long-term average of the S&P 500 (14%) as an acceptable ratio and anything less than 10% as poor.
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Return On Equity (ROE)

How to Calculate Return on Equity

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.

What Does ROE Tell You?

Whether 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 peer group. 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. When used to evaluate one company to another similar company, the comparison will be more meaningful. A common shortcut for investors is to consider a return on equity near the long-term average of the S&P 500 (14%) as an acceptable ratio and anything less than 10% as poor.

Using ROE to estimate growth rates

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.

ROE and a sustainable growth rate

Assume that there are two companies with identical ROEs and net income, but different retention ratios. Company A has an ROE of 15% and returns 30% of its net income to shareholders in a dividend, which means company A retains 70% of its net income. Business B also has an ROE of 15% but returns only 10% of its net income to shareholders for a retention ratio of 90%.

For company A, the growth rate is 10.5%, or ROE times the retention ratio, which is 15% times 70%. Business B's growth rate is 13.5%, or 15% times 90%.

This analysis is referred to as the sustainable growth rate model. Investors can use this model to make estimates about the future and to identify stocks that may be risky because they are running ahead of their sustainable growth ability. A stock that is growing at a slower rate than its sustainable rate could be undervalued, or the market may be discounting risky signs from the company. In either case, a growth rate that is far above or below the sustainable rate warrants additional investigation.

This comparison seems to make business B more attractive than company A, but it ignores the advantages of a higher dividend rate that may be favored by some investors. We can modify the calculation to estimate the stock’s dividend growth rate, which may be more important to income investors.

Estimating the Dividend Growth Rate

Continuing with our example from above, the dividend growth rate can be estimated by multiplying ROE by the payout ratio. The payout ratio is the percentage of net income that is returned to common shareholders through dividends. This formula gives us a sustainable dividend growth rate, which favors company A.

Company A's dividend growth rate is 4.5%, or ROE times the payout ratio, which is 15% times 30%. Business B's dividend growth rate is 1.5%, or 15% times 10%. A stock that is growing its dividend far above or below the sustainable dividend growth rate may indicate risks that should be investigated.

Using ROE to Identify Problems

It is reasonable to wonder why an average or slightly above-average ROE is good 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. 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 ROE

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. Also, 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.

ROE 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 ROE in Use

For example, imagine a company with an annual income of $1,800,000 and average shareholders' equity of $12,000,000. This company’s ROE would be as follows:

R O E = ( $ 1 , 800 , 000 $ 12 , 000 , 000 ) = 15 % ROE=\left(\frac{\$1,800,000}{\$12,000,000}\right )=15\% ROE=($12,000,000$1,800,000)=15%

Consider Apple Inc. (AAPL)—for the fiscal year ending Sept. 29, 2018, the company generated $59.5 billion in net income. At the end of the fiscal year, its shareholders’ equity was $107.1 billion versus $134 billion at the beginning. Apple’s return on equity, therefore, is 49.4%, or $59.5 billion / [($107.1 billion + $134 billion) / 2].

Compared to its peers, Apple has a very strong ROE.

  • Amazon.com, Inc. (AMZN) had an ROE of 27% in 2018
  • Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) had an ROE of 23% in Q3 2018
  • Google—now known as Alphabet Inc. (GOOGL)—had an ROE of 12% for Q3 2018.

How to Calculate ROE Using Excel

As stated above, 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 involving 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 better knowledge of the company and how it should be valued.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a good (ROE)?

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 average ROE for companies in the S&P 500 has been around 14%, specific industries can be significantly higher or lower than this average. 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?

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. The reason average shareholders’ equity is used is that this figure might fluctuate during the accounting period in question.

What is the difference between return on assets (ROA) and ROE?

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.