Accountants are in fourth place in a new ranking of how different industries fare in terms of return on equity.

The financial information company Sageworks recently analyzed the financial statements of private companies to find out which sectors generated the most return on equity in the past 12 months. ROE measures how efficiently a company generates profits from the business owners’ equity, indicating a company’s ability to keep growing without needing more debt or investment. ROE equals annualized net income divided by total equity, or the difference between assets and liabilities. Comparing a firm’s ROE to the industry average helps indicate its performance against its peers.

Lawyers (with an ROE of 83.4 percent), "other" health practitioners (ROE of 82.5 percent) and dentists (81.3 percent ROE) were at the top of the list, followed by accounting, tax, bookkeeping and payroll services (73.1 percent) and physicians (68.5 percent). The category of "other health practitioners," according to Standard Industry Classification, excludes physicians.

Ranking further down the list were home health care services (65.9 percent), outpatient care center (65.1 percent), personal care services (63.7 percent), special food services (63.3 percent), real estate agents and brokers (62.3 percent), employment services (61.8 percent), advertising and public relations (58.7 percent), automotive repair and maintenance (58.5 percent), and restaurants and eating places (55.0 percent).

“ROE is different from profitability, but it’s definitely related, which is why many on this list also achieve top spots in our profitability report,” said Sageworks analyst Libby Bierman in a statement. “Because of their high profit margins and barriers to entry, there are several professional industries—where certifications and advanced degrees are necessary—that make this list. For example, the long-term operating costs for a law firm may be low and allow firm owners to make a greater return than other industries, but at some point, that owner likely had to pay a large law-school bill.”

The ROE for private companies according to Sageworks differed from the returns for public companies, as calculated by New York University finance professor Aswath Damodaran. The average ROE for the past 12 months for companies in Sageworks’ database was 38 percent, while Damodaran’s study of 7,330 public companies this year found the average ROE to be 10.4 percent.

Return on equity for different industries

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Michael Cohn

Michael Cohn

Michael Cohn, editor-in-chief of AccountingToday.com, has been covering business and technology for a variety of publications since 1985.