Return on capital employed

The return on capital employed (ROCE) measures the proportion of adjusted earnings to the amount of capital and debt required for a business to function.  For a company to remain in business over the long term, its return on capital employed should be higher than its cost of capital; otherwise, continuing operations gradually reduce the earnings available to shareholders. It is commonly used to compare the efficiency of capital usage of businesses within the same industry.

The return on capital employed is a better measurement than return on equity, because ROCE shows how well a company is using both its equity and debt to generate a return.

How to Calculate ROCE

Both the numerator and denominator of the return on capital employed are subject to a variety of definitions. The main elements are:

  1. Numerator. This is most commonly earnings before interest and taxes, though you can also strip out any earnings from investments, in order to focus more clearly on the return from operations.
  2. Denominator. This is total assets minus current liabilities. It is essentially all of stockholders' equity plus debt.

The ROCE formula is:

Earnings before interest and taxes ÷ (Total assets - Current liabilities)

The measure should be tracked on at least an annual basis and plotted on a trend line, to spot long-term changes in corporate performance. 

Example of ROCE

Bovey Corporation has earnings before interest and taxes of $500,000, total assets of $4,500,000, and current liabilities of $200,000. Bovey's return on capital employed is:

$500,000 EBIT ÷ ($4,500,000 Assets - $200,000 Current liabilities)

= 11.6% Return on capital employed

A variation on the formula is to use average assets and average current liabilities in the denominator, which avoids any month-end spikes in these figures that might otherwise appear in the calculation.

Issues with ROCE

The denominator includes all assets, which means that it includes both fixed assets and their associated accumulated depreciation. Thus, the amount of the denominator will decline over time and yield a higher ratio, unless a company is constantly refreshing its fixed assets with additional purchases. This problem is exacerbated if a company uses accelerated depreciation. If accelerated depreciation is used, a labor-intensive alternative is to convert the depreciation to the straight-line basis and then run the return on capital employed calculation. The denominator can also be skewed downward if a company records the impairment of its fixed assets.

The net effect of these issues is that an older business tends to have a smaller denominator in the calculation, which results in a higher return on capital employed than a newer business that has not had more time in which to depreciate or record the impairment of its assets.

There are a wide range of interpretations on how the return on capital employed is to be calculated, so be sure to consistently use the same formula when using it for trend line analysis, or in comparison to the results of competitors.