The Power of Retained Earnings In 1924, Edgar Lawrence Smith, an obscure economist and financial advisor, wrote Common Stocks as Long Term Investments, a slim book that changed the investment world. Indeed, writing the book changed Smith himself, forcing him to reassess his own investment beliefs. Going in, he planned to argue that stocks would perform better than bonds during inflationary periods and that bonds would deliver superior returns during deflationary times. That seemed sensible enough. But Smith was in for a shock. His book began, therefore, with a confession: “These studies are the record of a failure – the failure of facts to sustain a preconceived theory.” Luckily for investors, that failure led Smith to think more deeply about how stocks should be evaluated. For the crux of Smith’s insight, I will quote an early reviewer of his book, none other than John Maynard Keynes: “I have kept until last what is perhaps Mr. Smith’s most important, and is certainly his most novel, point. Well-managed industrial companies do not, as a rule, distribute to the shareholders the whole of their earned profits. In good years, if not in all years, they retain a part of their profits and put them back into the business. Thus there is an element of compound interest (Keynes’ italics) operating in favour of a sound industrial investment. Over a period of years, the real value of the property of a sound industrial is increasing at compound interest, quite apart from the dividends paid out to the shareholders.” And with that sprinkling of holy water, Smith was no longer obscure. It’s difficult to understand why retained earnings were unappreciated by investors before Smith’s book was published. After all, it was no secret that mind-boggling wealth had earlier been amassed by such titans as Carnegie, Rockefeller and Ford, all of whom had retained a huge portion of their business earnings to fund growth and produce ever-greater profits. Throughout America, also, there had long been small-time capitalists who became rich following the same playbook . Nevertheless, when business ownership was sliced into small pieces – “stocks” – buyers in the pre-Smith years usually thought of their shares as a short-term gamble on market movements. Even at their best, stocks were considered speculations. Gentlemen preferred bonds. Though investors were slow to wise up, the math of retaining and reinvesting earnings is now well understood. Today, school children learn what Keynes termed “novel”: combining savings with compound interest works wonders. ************ At Berkshire, Charlie and I have long focused on using retained earnings advantageously. Sometimes this job has been easy – at other times, more than difficult, particularly when we began working with huge and ever growing sums of money. In our deployment of the funds we retain, we first seek to invest in the many and diverse businesses we already own. During the past decade, Berkshire’s depreciation charges have aggregated $65 billion whereas the company’s internal investments in property, plant and equipment have totaled $121 billion. Reinvestment in productive operational assets will forever remain our top priority. In addition, we constantly seek to buy new businesses that meet three criteria. First, they must earn good returns on the net tangible capital required in their operation. Second, they must be run by able and honest managers. Finally, they must be available at a sensible price. When we spot such businesses, our preference would be to buy 100% of them. But the opportunities to make major acquisitions possessing our required attributes are rare. Far more often, a fickle stock market serves up opportunities for us to buy large, but non-controlling, positions in publicly-traded companies that meet our standards. Whichever way we go – controlled companies or only a major stake by way of the stock market – Berkshire’s financial results from the commitment will in large part be determined by the future earnings of the business we have purchased. Nonetheless, there is between the two investment approaches a hugely important accounting difference, essential for you to understand.In our controlled companies, (defined as those in which Berkshire owns more than 50% of the shares), the earnings of each business flow directly into the operating earnings that we report to you. What you see is what you get. In the non-controlled companies, in which we own marketable stocks, only the dividends that Berkshire receives are recorded in the operating earnings we report. The retained earnings? They’re working hard and creating much added value, but not in a way that deposits those gains directly into Berkshire’s reported earnings. Read? The letter - Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
Last updated : 14 Sep 2019
I am 63 yrs old uncle living in HDB heartland who has achieved financial independence @ 56 and finally retired @ 60 from full-time job as employee on 1 Oct 2016.
Single household income since 1995 with three children.
Currently, two sons and one daughter are working.
I have been doing 20 years of long-term investing and short-term trading in Singapore stock market only since Jan 2000 so I am that so-called Panda or Koala in the investment world.
I am currently executing my Three Taps solution model to maintain sustainable retirement income for life till 2041 @ 85 yrs old.
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