What Is Equity?
Equity, typically referred to as shareholders' equity (or owners' equity for privately held companies), represents the amount of money that would be returned to a company's shareholders if all of the assets were liquidated and all of the company's debt was paid off in the case of liquidation. In the case of acquisition, it is the value of company sales minus any liabilities owed by the company not transferred with the sale.
In addition, shareholder equity can represent the book value of a company. Equity can sometimes be offered as payment-in-kind. It also represents the pro-rata ownership of a company's shares.
Equity can be found on a company's balance sheet and is one of the most common pieces of data employed by analysts to assess a company's financial health.
How Shareholder Equity Works
By comparing concrete numbers reflecting everything the company owns and everything it owes, the "assets-minus-liabilities" shareholder equity equation paints a clear picture of a company's finances, which can be easily interpreted by investors and analysts. Equity is used as capital raised by a company, which is then used to purchase assets, invest in projects, and fund operations. A firm typically can raise capital by issuing debt (in the form of a loan or via bonds) or equity (by selling stock). Investors typically seek out equity investments as it provides greater opportunity to share in the profits and growth of a firm.
Equity is important because it represents the value of an investor’s stake in a company, represented by their proportion of the company's shares. Owning stock in a company gives shareholders the potential for capital gains as well as dividends. Owning equity will also give shareholders the right to vote on corporate actions and in any elections for the board of directors. These equity ownership benefits promote shareholders' ongoing interest in the company.
Shareholder equity can be either negative or positive. If positive, the company has enough assets to cover its liabilities. If negative, the company's liabilities exceed its assets; if prolonged, this is considered balance sheet insolvency. Typically, investors view companies with negative shareholder equity as risky or unsafe investments. Shareholder equity alone is not a definitive indicator of a company's financial health; used in conjunction with other tools and metrics, the investor can accurately analyze the health of an organization.
How is equity used by investors?
Equity is a very important concept for investors. For instance, in looking at a company, an investor might use shareholders’ equity as a benchmark for determining whether a particular purchase price is expensive. If that company has historically traded at a price to book value of 1.5, for instance, then an investor might think twice before paying more than that valuation unless they feel the company’s prospects have fundamentally improved. On the other hand, an investor might feel comfortable buying shares in a relatively weak business as long as the price they pay is sufficiently low relative to its equity.