As investors, we need to understand how our companies truly make their money. Thankfully, there's a neat trick developed for just that purpose: the DuPont Formula.

The DuPont Formula can help you get a better grasp on exactly where your company is producing its profit, and where it might have a competitive advantage. Named after the company that pioneered it, the DuPont Formula breaks down return on equity into three components:

Return on equity = Net margins x asset turnover x leverage ratio

High net margins show that a company is able to get customers to pay more for its products. (Think luxury-goods companies.) High asset turnover indicates that a company needs to invest less of its capital, since it uses its assets more efficiently to generate sales. (Think service industries, which often lack high capital investments.) Finally, the leverage ratio shows how heavily the company relies on liabilities to create profit.

Generally, the higher these numbers, the better. But too much debt can sink a company, so beware of companies with very high leverage ratios.

Let's take a look at Intel (Nasdaq: INTC) and a few of its sector and industry peers.

Company

Return on Equity

Net Margins

Asset Turnover

Leverage Ratio

Intel 25.6% 26.8% 0.75 1.27
Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE: AMD) 56.7% 7.3% 0.92 8.45
Micron Technology (Nasdaq: MU) 26.8% 20% 0.68 1.96
NVIDIA (Nasdaq: NVDA) 8% 5.8% 0.99 1.39

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

Intel achieves an attractive return on equity, using high net margins to drive the numbers. Contrast that with AMD, which garners a much higher ROE through lower margins and a far higher leverage ratio. Micron's numbers look similar to Intel's, with fat net margins and an average leverage ratio. NVIDIA has similar asset turnover and leverage ratios to Intel and AMD, but it has much lower margins, which make its ROE look only so-so.

Using the DuPont formula can often give you some insight into how a company is competing against peers and what type of strategy it's using to juice return on equity.

Jim Royal, Ph.D., does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. Intel is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. NVIDIA is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor choice. The Fool owns shares of and has bought calls on Intel. Motley Fool Optionshas recommended buying calls on Intel. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.