Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Return on Equity, Episode I (ROE-EP1): Beating the Cost of Equity

That's a cool title! Agree? Anyways, this is probably the last important financial ratio that I have not touched on. You are wondering just how many financial ratios did Wall Street come up with right? Well this is different, this is the famous ROE and its equally famous Du Pont decomposition, chim huh?

Ok, Return on Equity or ROE measure the return that can be earned by the portion of shareholders’ money in the company. Mathematically, it is defined as

Net Profit / Shareholders’ Equity

This is totally different from earnings yield so pls don’t get confused. ROE has to do with the financial performance of the company while earnings yield deals with the performance of the stock. Over the long run (i.e. very long lah, like 20 yrs or more), both should converge, but fundamentally they measure different things.

So why is ROE important? Bcos it measures the profitability of the company with respect to shareholders’ funding. Equity capital comes at a cost (just like debt) and a company with a low ROE runs the risk that it cannot earn its cost of capital (equity in this case) and this means that the company is in deep shit.

As an analogy, say Investor T decides to invest in this Company S and T demands a 8% return over the long run. If you are asking why 8%, don’t ask bcos it introduces a lot of chim stuff like CAPM and more Nobel Laureates which will make it quite complicated. So let us save that for another post.

So T wants 8% but say this S is actually quite crappy and can only do 5% return. This means that T is not adequately compensated for investing in S bcos S is a in a risky business and T might as well have put the money in a bank or perhaps invest in a structured product tied to the growth rate of ministers’ pay which could have given T 8% return or more. So that’s bad news for S bcos equity funds will pull out and S may have to cease operations. So in order for S not to cease operating, it must has a ROE at least as high as its cost of equity.

In other words, a company should earn its cost of equity in order to justify its existence to shareholders. The higher the ROE, the easier for the company to earn its cost of equity and the better the company is as an investment. This concept can be expanded to the cost of capital of the company, where we bring in the cost of debt together with the cost of equity. So a company has to earn a return more than its cost of capital to justify its existence to both shareholders and debtholders.

There are other ways to look at ROE and we shall examine them in later posts.
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