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What These Ratios Tell Us About Vodafone Group Plc (ADR) (VOD)

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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.

Vodafone Group Plc (ADR) (NASDAQ:VOD)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 Vodafone Group Plc (ADR) (NASDAQ:VOD), to see how attractive it looks on these two measures.

Vodafone’s returns
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 profits by its equity (i.e., the difference between its total assets and its total liabilities) and is expressed as a percentage.

Vodafone has outperformed the FTSE 100 over the last five years, delivering an average dividend yield of 5.5% and a share price gain of 26% — so how has Vodafone’s ROE changed during that time?

2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 Average
ROE 3.7% 9.8% 9.0% 8.5% 0.6% 6.3%

Revenue from Vodafone Group Plc (ADR) (NASDAQ:VOD)’s Southern Europe operations fell by 16.7% last year, prompting a 7.7 billion pounds writedown on the value of its Italian and Spanish operations, and crushing its ROE.

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 Vodafone Group Plc (ADR) (NASDAQ:VOD)’s net gearing and ROE alongside those of one of its European peers, Telefonica S.A. (ADR) (NYSE:TEF):

Company Net Gearing 5-Year Average ROE
Vodafone 39.8% 6.3%
Telefonica 259% 33.3%

Vodafone’s ROE may be lower than investors would like, but one look at Telefonica’s debt levels suggests to me that the British company may be a safer investment.

Is Vodafone a buy?
In its most recent results, Vodafone Group Plc (ADR) (NASDAQ:VOD) said that it’s committed to maintaining the current dividend — in other words, any increases are unlikely in the near future. Given the pressure on the firm’s cash flow from dividends, falling profits in Southern Europe, and capital investment, this isn’t surprising.

The sale of Vodafone’s 45% stake in Verizon Wireless might address the firm’s cash flow squeeze, but it is not yet certain how or if this will happen.

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