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. By way of learning-by-doing, we’ll look at ROE to gain a better understanding of Harley-Davidson, Inc. (NYSE:HOG).
Return on equity or ROE is a key measure used to assess how efficiently a company’s management is utilizing the company’s capital. Put another way, it reveals the company’s success at turning shareholder investments into profits.
How To Calculate Return On Equity?
ROE can be calculated by using the formula:
Return on Equity = Net Profit (from continuing operations) ÷ Shareholders’ Equity
So, based on the above formula, the ROE for Harley-Davidson is:
9.7% = US$191m ÷ US$2.0b (Based on the trailing twelve months to March 2021).
The ‘return’ is the amount earned after tax over the last twelve months. So, this means that for every $1 of its shareholder’s investments, the company generates a profit of $0.10.
Does Harley-Davidson Have A Good ROE?
Arguably the easiest way to assess company’s ROE is to compare it with the average in its industry. Importantly, this is far from a perfect measure, because companies differ significantly within the same industry classification. As shown in the graphic below, Harley-Davidson has a lower ROE than the average (15%) in the Auto industry classification.
That’s not what we like to see. That being said, a low ROE is not always a bad thing, especially if the company has low leverage as this still leaves room for improvement if the company were to take on more debt. When a company has low ROE but high debt levels, we would be cautious as the risk involved is too high.
How Does Debt Impact 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. Thus the use of debt can improve ROE, albeit along with extra risk in the case of stormy weather, metaphorically speaking.
Combining Harley-Davidson’s Debt And Its 9.7% Return On Equity
It seems that Harley-Davidson uses a huge volume of debt to fund the business, since it has an extremely high debt to equity ratio of 3.96. Most investors would need a low share price to be interested in a company with low ROE and high debt to equity.
Return on equity is one way we can compare its business quality of different companies. Companies that can achieve high returns on equity without too much debt are generally of good quality. 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 ROE is just one piece of a bigger puzzle, since high quality businesses often trade on high multiples of earnings. It is important to consider other factors, such as future profit growth — and how much investment is required going forward.