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, or ROIC, 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 put, it divides a company's operating profit by how much investment it took to get that profit:

ROIC = Net operating profit after taxes / Invested capital

(We've got more details about this formula, if you're curious.)

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 higher than the cost of capital, which for most businesses lands between 8% and 12%. Ideally, we want to see ROIC exceeding 12% at minimum, coupled with a history of steady or increasing returns, which would indicate some durability to the company's economic moat.

Let’s take a look at International Paper (NYSE: IP) 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

International Paper 8.4% 4.5% 6.1% 3.1%*
MeadWestvaco (NYSE: MWV) 6.8% 4.1% 3.5% 4.2%
Weyerhaeuser (NYSE: WY) 3.3%** -0.6%** 0.2%** 4.8%
Neenah Paper (NYSE: NP) 7.5% 5.6%*** 4.3%*** 7.2%

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor’s.
*Because IP did not report an effective tax rate five years ago, we used its 26% effective tax rate from three years ago.
**Because WY did not report an effective tax rate at TTM, last year, or three years ago, we used its 36% effective tax rate from five years ago.
***Because NP did not report an effective tax rate last year or three years ago, we used its 37% effective tax rate from five years ago.

International Paper’s returns on invested capital have increased from five years ago, suggesting that its competitive position is growing stronger. Two of the other listed companies -- MeadWestvaco and Neenah Paper -- have also seen increases in their returns, while Weyerhaeuser’s returns have declined over the same time period.

Businesses with consistently high ROIC can prove 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 us dividends, buy back shares, or further invest in their franchise. Warren Buffett has long loved healthy and growing dividends -- and you should, too.

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 or set up a new Watchlist, just click here.

Jim Royal, Ph.D., does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. 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 insightsmakes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.