Why Retaining Earnings Makes More Sense Than Distributions

I have written numerous articles about dividends and compounding. To sum up, in order to create the biggest amount of wealth, you would want to invest in a company that has high returns on capital and opportunities to redeploy the earnings into the business at the same returns or close to same returns (I have provided relevant links at the bottom of this article). This of course assumes opportunities to redeploy the earnings. If not, then it makes sense to return capital to shareholders.

Distributions and subsequent reinvestments are an inefficient way of compounding!

Some weeks ago I wrote an article showing the math behind compounding externally (via distributions) versus internally (not making shareholder distributions but redeploying the earnings into the business). The link to the Google Sheet can be found here.

The assumptions are:

  • Company A and B are identical businesses having the same growth and returns.
  • Both companies grow return on equity (ROE) like clockwork at 10% annually.
  • Both companies trade at a price to book (P/B) multiple of two.

However, they deviate in how they allocate capital: Company A distributes 50% of the earnings as dividends, while Company B redeploys all earnings back into the business. Because of this, shareholders of Company A have a hard time compounding compared to Company B (I’m assuming all shareholders in Company A DRIP – ie. reinvest the dividend at year’s end at P/B of 2).

To better illustrate the performance of the share price of these two companies, I made this graph from the Google Sheet:

Reinvesting at multiples to book (after taxes) creates a huge headwind as time goes by (the chart shows 0-20 years). Source: My own calculations.

The red line is an initial 20 000 investment in Company B, blue line is Company B and yellow line is Company B after 20% dividend tax. The values after 20 years are like this:

  • Company B: 134 500 (10% CAGR)
  • Company A: 84 800 (7.5% CAGR)
  • Company A including 20% dividend tax: 77 300 (7% CAGR)

A pretty big difference considering the only difference is how they allocate capital! As long as Company B can redeploy earnings at rates higher than 7.5%, it’s a better investment than Company A.

I repeat again: Berkshire Hathaway has been a fantastic investment precisely because it doesn’t pay a dividend, but redeploy the profits back into the business. If Berkshire had paid a quarterly or annual dividend, the value would be a fraction of what it is today. Dividend investors might argue a dividend is the way to get rich. I believe long-term Berkshire shareholders know otherwise. Berkshire has been a huge compounding machine because it doesn’t pay a dividend. I think it pays off to spend some time to understand why Berkshire has not paid a dividend in all those years.

But, as the successful money manager Terry Smith in Fundsmith says:

I don’t think you should ever invest for income. It is a mistake…….. You shouldn’t just invest for dividends, you should invest in businesses that reinvest their profits to achieve a future growth rate…..However, I realise that for many investors, the idea of realising part of their capital to provide income is anathema.

– Terry Smith, CIO of Fundsmith.

Relevant links on how to compound:

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