We'd all like to invest as successfully as the legendary Warren Buffett. He calculates return on invested capital (ROIC) to help determine whether a company has an economic moat -- the ability to earn returns on its money beyond 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 put, ROIC divides a company's operating profit by the amount of investment it took to get that profit:

ROIC = Net operating profit after taxes / Invested capital

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 efficiently 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 lands between 8% and 12%. Ideally, we want to see ROIC greater than 12%, at minimum. We're also seeking a history of increasing returns, or at least steady returns, which indicate that the company's moat can withstand competitors' assaults.

Let's look at Colgate-Palmolive (NYSE: CL) and two of its industry peers to see how efficiently they use capital. Here are the ROIC figures for each company over several time periods:

Company

TTM

1 year ago

3 years ago

5 years ago

Colgate-Palmolive

35.5%

32.6%

29.2%

22.9%

Clorox (NYSE: CLX)

20.6%

20.0%

22.7%

24.9%

Church & Dwight (NYSE: CHD)

11.5%

10.8%

9.4%

10.6%

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

Colgate-Palmolive offers us a very high return on invested capital, and displays the type of growth in returns we are looking for.  The company’s competitive position appears to be getting stronger, at least according to this metric. Church & Dwight has also offered us steady growth in its return on capital over the last three years, but it does not yet quite meet our desired 12% return on capital.  Clorox, while it also offers us high returns on capital, is down more than four percentage points from five years ago. Its competitive edge seems to have somewhat eroded, although the ROIC is still quite high.  

Businesses with consistently high ROIC are efficiently using capital. They can use their extra returns to buy back shares, further invest in their future success, or pay dividends to shareholders. (Warren Buffett especially likes that last part.)

To unearth more successful investments, dig a little deeper than the earnings headlines, and check up on your companies' ROIC.

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Jim Royal, Ph.D., owns shares in Church & Dwight. Clorox is a Motley Fool Income Investor pick. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.