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What Do These Ratios Tell Us About Rio Tinto plc (ADR) (RIO)?

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LONDON — Before I decide whether to buy a company’s shares, I always like to look at two core financial ratios — return on equity and net gearing.

These two ratios provide an indication of how successful a company is at generating profits using shareholders’ funds and debt, and they have a strong influence on dividend payments and share price growth.

Today, I’m going to take a look at one of the ‘big three’ London-listed miners, Rio Tinto plc (ADR) (NYSE:RIO), to see how attractive it looks on these two measures.

Rio Tinto plc (ADR) (NYSE:RIO) (LSE:RIO)

Return on equity
The return a company generates on its shareholders’ funds is known as return on equity, or ROE. Return on equity can be calculated by dividing a company’s annual earnings by its equity (ie, the difference between its total assets and its total liabilities) and is expressed as a percentage.

Let’s start with a look at Rio’s ROE for the last five years:

Rio Tinto 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 Average
ROE 19.8% 16.5% 28.1% 10.5% (6.0)% 13.8%

In January this year, Rio Tinto plc (ADR) (NYSE:RIO) announced non-cash impairments totaling $14 billon, due to writedowns in the value of its aluminum business and its Mozambique coal assets, both of which the firm now admits it paid too much for.

This drop in the company’s asset values — combined with its first ever annual loss — resulted in a negative ROE for 2012.

What about debt?
One weakness of ROE is that it doesn’t show how much debt a company is using to boost its returns. A good way of assessing a company’s debt levels is by looking at its net gearing — the ratio of net debt to equity.

In the table below, I’ve listed Rio Tinto plc (ADR) (NYSE:RIO)’s net gearing and ROE alongside those of its London-listed peers, Anglo American plc (ADR) (OTCMKTS:AAUKY) and BHP Billiton Limited (ADR) (NYSE:BHP):

Company Net Gearing 5-Year
Average ROE
Rio Tinto 41.0% 13.8%
Anglo American 22.7% 13.9%
BHP Billiton 45.1% 31.8%

These figures show what happen when investments go wrong — Rio Tinto plc (ADR) (NYSE:RIO)’s net gearing doubled last year, thanks to last year’s triple-whammy of falling earnings, high capital expenditure and asset writedowns.

In contrast, BHP Billiton Limited (ADR) (NYSE:BHP) has delivered far superior returns, thanks mostly to its petroleum division, which has offset a fall in mining profits.

Buy Rio Tinto
Rio Tinto plc (ADR) (NYSE:RIO) has taken decisive measures to cut costs, and I think it will make a strong return to profit this year.

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