Does Bridgepoint Education Earn Its Keep?

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We'd all like to invest like the legendary Warren Buffett, turning thousands into millions or more. Buffett analyzes companies by calculating return on invested capital in order to help determine whether a company has an economic moat -- the ability to earn returns on its money above that money's cost.

ROIC is perhaps the most important metric in value investing. By determining a company's ROIC, you can see how well it's using the cash you entrust to it and whether it's actually creating value for you. Simply, it divides a company's operating profit by how much investment it took to get that profit. The formula is

ROIC = Net operating profit after taxes / Invested capital

The nuances of the formula are explained in further detail here. This one-size-fits-all calculation cuts out many of the legal accounting tricks (such as excessive debt) that managers use to boost earnings numbers, and provides you with an apples-to-apples way to evaluate businesses, even across industries. The higher the ROIC, the more efficient the company uses capital.

Ultimately, we're looking for companies that can invest their money at rates that are higher than the cost of capital, which for most businesses is between 8% and 12%. Ideally, we want to see ROIC above 12%, at a minimum, and a history of increasing returns, or at least steady returns, which indicate some durability to the company's economic moat.

Let's take a look at Bridgepoint Education (NYS: BPI) and three of its industry peers, to see how efficiently they use cash. Here are the ROIC figures for each company over a few periods.

Company

TTM

1 Year Ago

3 Years Ago

5 Years Ago

Bridgepoint Education402.7%674.4%65.0%(73.1%)
Apollo Group (NAS: APOL) 115.1%83.6%74.8%142.1%
Corinthian Colleges (NAS: COCO) 13.4%*16.9%5.1%11.4%
ITT Educational Services (NYS: ESI) (3,192.7%)669.0%764.1%(211.3%)

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.
*Because Corinthian did not report an effective tax rate, we used its 39% effective tax rate from one year ago.

The numbers here show the attraction of being a for-profit educator. Bridgepoint shows substantial returns on invested capital, even though its returns are down from last year (that's an effect of having more invested capital in the last four quarters than having lower earnings). Corinthian has seen improvement in its returns over the past three years, as has Apollo. ITT's negative returns are due to negative invested capital -- a great position to be in -- rather than negative earnings.

Businesses with consistently high ROIC show that they're efficiently using capital. They also have the ability to treat shareholders well, because they can then use their extra cash to pay out dividends to us, buy back shares, or further invest in their franchise. And healthy and growing dividends are something that Warren Buffett has long loved.

So for more successful investments, dig a little deeper than the earnings headlines to find the company's ROIC. If you'd like to add these companies to your Watchlist, click below:

At the time this article was published Jim Royal, Ph.D., does not own shares of any company mentioned here. The Motley Fool owns shares of Bridgepoint Education.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended writing puts in Bridgepoint Education. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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