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Course 205
Measuring Returns on Capital

Introduction

What makes a company great? It's not rapid growth. It's not landing on a best-of-the-year list. And it's not sporting a ".com" after its name. Rather, it's the ability to generate high returns on capital. Suppose you decide to open a science-fiction theme restaurant, complete with waiters dressed as aliens, video games, funky Star Trek décor, and so on. The money you spend building the joint is your capital. Whether the business is a good investment depends on how much profit you make as a percentage of that capital. If you earn a profit of $10,000 in a given year and you've invested $100,000 in building the restaurant, you've made a 10% return on your capital. Not spectacular, but better than a savings account.

Return on Equity

The way analysts usually measure return on capital for publicly traded companies is return on equity, or ROE. This is calculated by dividing net earnings by shareholders' equity. Shareholders' equity, or equity capital, is equal to total assets minus total liabilities. That is the part of the company owned by stockholders--the capital they have invested in the company. Dell Computer DELL earned an incredible 63% on its equity capital in 1999. In other words, for every $1 of shareholder money invested in the firm, Dell generated an annual profit of $0.63. Be careful, though. It's easier to post a large ROE in a single year than it is to maintain that large ROE over a longer period. Oil driller EOG Resources EOG, for example, earned 58% on its equity in 1999, but if you average the company's ROEs over the five-year period from 1995 to 1999, the figure drops to a much less impressive 19%. It's that long-term return on capital that we're interested in.

Why Return on Equity Matters

Let's go back to the restaurant example. Instead of just one sci-fi restaurant, let's say you want to open a whole chain of them. In the early years of building your empire, you'll be adding to your capital base aggressively. But because of the costs of opening restaurants, you will probably take losses; most companies in their formative stages lose money. If after a few years you've sunk $500,000 into your restaurants but are losing $50,000 annually, your return on capital is negative 10%. (A pretty realistic figure for the sci-fi idea, I'd say.) It's not necessarily bad for a company to earn a negative return on equity--if it can earn a high return in the future, that is. An investor will stomach a negative 10% ROE for your sci-fi restaurants if he believes they can earn much higher returns in the future. The trouble is, in a company's rapid-growth phase, when returns on equity are most often small or negative, it's tough to separate a good business (one that can earn a high ROE) from a bad business (one not able to). After all, each is losing money. Analyzing such companies means asking questions like "Is this a company with enough pricing power to eventually command a premium price for its product?" And "Is this a company with enough of a cost advantage that it can undercut the competition?" It means, in other words, asking whether the company's business can either generate a high net margin (profit/sales) or a high asset turnover (sales/assets), the two key components of a high return on capital.

ROE and Internet Stocks

As a concrete example, consider the fastest-growing segment of 1999, Internet stocks. Most Internet companies are growing at a torrid clip, but few of them are generating profits, and apart from America Online AOL and its 25% ROE in 1999, none have generated a high return on capital. In 1999, the return on equity for market darling Amazon.com AMZN was negative 270%. In other words, for each dollar shareholders had invested in the company, Amazon lost $2.70. To replenish the lost capital, the company must either issue debt or turn to shareholders for more money--and there are still plenty of people willing to pony up the money to own a piece of Amazon. If Amazon is going to justify its price, it will eventually have to generate good returns on capital, and whether it can do that depends on which pundits you listen to. But there's no argument that returns on capital are the engine that drives stock prices in the long run. Companies that go on to earn good returns on capital--ROEs of more than 15% or 20%--will probably make good investments. Those that struggle to earn a decent return will probably be wretched investments, regardless of how fast they grow. So if someone tries to talk you into investing $10,000 in a sci-fi restaurant or in a few hundred shares of an Internet stock, don't ask how fast the company will grow. Ask how the heck it's going to earn a good return on its capital.

Quiz 205
There is only one correct answer to each question.

1 Shareholders' equity represents:
a. All the cash a company has.
b. The part of a company owned by shareholders.
c. The part of a company financed by debt.
2 A company with a high return on equity:
a. Is generating a lot of profits for each dollar shareholders have invested in it.
b. Is spending a lot of money to expand rapidly.
c. Is paying high dividends to its shareholders.
3 A negative return on equity:
a. Means the company is on the verge of bankruptcy.
b. Means the company has a lot of debt.
c. Is not unusual for young, fast-growing companies.
4 A company with a negative ROE has to get money:
a. By raising prices.
b. From a special fund run by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
c. Either through debt or from shareholders.
5 High returns on capital:
a. Are a major long-term driver of stock prices.
b. Are typical of companies in their rapid-growth phase.
c. Are easy to maintain over a period of years.
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