What is Return on Investment (ROI)?

Here’s a closer look at what return on investment is, how to calculate and understand it, and new developments impacting ROI for the future.

return on equity
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Return on investment, or ROI, is a commonly used profitability ratio which calculates the amount of return, or profit, an investment generates relative to its cost. Expressed as a percentage, ROI is extremely useful in evaluating individual investments or competing investment opportunities.

Put simply, ROI is a ratio between net profit and cost of investment. A high ROI means the investment’s gains compare favourably to its cost. 

How to calculate ROI

The simplest form of the ROI calculation involves only two values: the cost of the investment and the gain from the investment. The formula is as follows:

 ROI (%) = Current value of investment − Initial value of investment ×100% /  Cost of investment

The ratio is multiplied by 100, making it a percentage. This way, you are able to see what percentage of investment has been gained back after a period of time.

The current value of investment is simply the revenue from the sale of the investment. As an example, an investor purchases property A, which is valued at $500,000. A year later, the investor sells the property for $700,000.

So the ROI formula, in this case, would be:

ROI = (700,000 – 500,000) x 100 / (500,000) = 40%

Understanding return on investment (ROI)

The calculation itself is relatively easy to interpret for a range of ventures and investments. 

For example, suppose Jill invested $1,000 in Tip Top Transport Corp in 2018 and sold her shares for a total of $1,200 one year later. To calculate the return on her investment, she would divide her profits ($1,200 – $1,000 = $200) by the investment cost ($1,000), for a ROI of $200/$1,000, or 20%.

With this information, Jill could compare her investment in Tip Top Transport with her other projects. Perhaps Jill also invested $2,000 in Big-Save Stores Inc in 2015 and sold her shares for a total of $2,800 in 2018. The ROI on Jill’s holdings in Big-Save would be $800/$2,000, or 40%.

From Jill’s example, we can see her investments had a positive ROI. If her investments lost money, the ROI would be in the negative.

ROI can be used as a simple indicator of an investment’s profitability. This could be the ROI on a share investment, the ROI a company expects on a factory expansion, or the ROI generated in a real estate transaction. Because ROI is measured as a percentage, it is easy to compare it with returns on other investments.

Limitations of ROI

While generally very helpful, there are some shortcomings to the formula. Examples like Jill’s above reveal some ROI limitations, especially when weighing up the performance of investments. In the above example, you can see the ROI of Jill’s second investment was double what her first investment was, while the time between purchase and sale was one year for her first investment, and three years for her second.

For a better analysis, Jill could adjust the ROI of her longer investment; since her total ROI was 40%, she could divide 40% by 3 to yield 13.33%, as this would show her the average annual ROI figure. With this adjustment, you can see that while Jill’s second investment earned more profit, her first investment was actually more efficient.

Developments in ROI

As it becomes essential for organisations to look at social and environmental impacts, a new way of measuring ROI has arisen called ‘social return on investment’ or SROI. 

SROI has emerged, globally, to give monetary value to certain environmental, social, and governance criteria used in socially responsible investing (SRI) practices. For instance, a company may replace its lighting with all LED bulbs, or implement wastewater recycling in its factories. These expenses have an immediate cost which may negatively impact traditional ROI. However, the net benefit to society and the environment could lead to a positive SROI.

New developments in social media statistics ROI pinpoint the effectiveness of a social media campaign — for example, how many clicks or likes are generated for a unit of effort. Also, ‘learning ROI’ shows the amount of information learned and retained as a return on education or skills training. 

While many niche forms of ROI may appear, some outcomes and impacts (for example, improved relationships and increased self-esteem) can’t easily be measured with a monetary value. SROI analysis is an evolving area and as SROI develops, more methods of monetising outcomes may become available.

Updated 5th August, 2021. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691). Authorised by Bruce Jackson.