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Can Stepan Company (NYSE:SCL) Improve Its Returns?

Sean Barnes

While some investors are already well versed in financial metrics (hat tip), this article is for those who would like to learn about Return On Equity (ROE) and why it is important. To keep the lesson grounded in practicality, we’ll use ROE to better understand Stepan Company ( NYSE:SCL ).

Over the last twelve months Stepan has recorded a ROE of 12% . That means that for every $1 worth of shareholders’ equity, it generated $0.12 in profit.

Check out our latest analysis for Stepan

How Do I Calculate Return On Equity?

The formula for return on equity is:

Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders’ Equity

Or for Stepan:

12% = 95.7 ÷ US$778m (Based on the trailing twelve months to September 2018.)

It’s easy to understand the ‘net profit’ part of that equation, but ‘shareholders’ equity’ requires further explanation. It is all the money paid into the company from shareholders, plus any earnings retained. You can calculate shareholders’ equity by subtracting the company’s total liabilities from its total assets.

What Does ROE Signify?

ROE looks at the amount a company earns relative to the money it has kept within the business. The ‘return’ is the profit over the last twelve months. A higher profit will lead to a higher ROE. So, as a general rule, a high ROE is a good thing . That means ROE can be used to compare two businesses.

Does Stepan Have A Good ROE?

One simple way to determine if a company has a good return on equity is to compare it to the average for its industry. The limitation of this approach is that some companies are quite different from others, even within the same industry classification. If you look at the image below, you can see Stepan has a lower ROE than the average (17%) in the Chemicals industry classification.

NYSE:SCL Last Perf December 21st 18

That’s not what we like to see. We prefer it when the ROE of a company is above the industry average, but it’s not the be-all and end-all if it is lower. Nonetheless, it might be wise to check if insiders have been selling .

Why You Should Consider Debt When Looking At ROE

Virtually all companies need money to invest in the business, to grow profits. The cash for investment can come from prior year profits (retained earnings), issuing new shares, or borrowing. In the case of the first and second options, the ROE will reflect this use of cash, for growth. In the latter case, the use of debt will improve the returns, but will not change the equity. That will make the ROE look better than if no debt was used.

Stepan’s Debt And Its 12% ROE

While Stepan does have some debt, with debt to equity of just 0.37, we wouldn’t say debt is excessive. The fact that it achieved a fairly good ROE with only modest debt suggests the business might be worth putting on your watchlist. Careful use of debt to boost returns is often very good for shareholders. However, it could reduce the company’s ability to take advantage of future opportunities.

But It’s Just One Metric

Return on equity is one way we can compare the business quality of different companies. In my book the highest quality companies have high return on equity, despite low debt. All else being equal, a higher ROE is better.

But when a business is high quality, the market often bids it up to a price that reflects this. It is important to consider other factors, such as future profit growth — and how much investment is required going forward. So you might want to take a peek at this data-rich interactive graph of forecasts for the company .

Of course, you might find a fantastic investment by looking elsewhere. So take a peek at this free list of interesting companies.

To help readers see past the short term volatility of the financial market, we aim to bring you a long-term focused research analysis purely driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis does not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements.

The author is an independent contributor and at the time of publication had no position in the stocks mentioned. For errors that warrant correction please contact the editor at editorial-team@simplywallst.com .