Dividends vs. Retained Earnings (Why Retaining Earnings Is Better Than Dividends in 2024 Explained)

Dividends vs. retained earnings – what is best from a shareholders perspective?

In this article, I discuss dividends vs. retained earnings and where the capital compounds best:  in your hands or in the company’s hands. Distributions and subsequent reinvestments are an inefficient way of compounding! Given certain assumptions, retaining the earnings is better than distributing them.

I have written numerous articles about dividends and compounding. To sum up, 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 the 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.

Dividends vs. retained earnings – an example

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:

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  • 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 – i.e. 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:

Dividend vs retained earnings
Reinvesting at multiples to book (after taxes) creates a massive headwind as time passes (the chart shows 0-20 years). Source: My own calculations.

The red line is an initial 20 000 investment in Company B, the blue line is Company B, and the yellow line is Company B after a 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! Company B can redeploy earnings at rates higher than 7.5%, so it’s a better investment than Company A.

Dividends vs. retained earnings: Why Berkshire Hathaway doesn’t pay a dividend

Berkshire Hathaway has been a fantastic investment because it doesn’t pay dividends but redeploys the profits back into the business.

The example above shows why Warren Buffett doesn’t want to pay dividends. It’s a decision made on rational arguments on how to compound efficiently.

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 a way to get rich. I believe long-term Berkshire shareholders know otherwise.

Berkshire has been a huge compounding machine because it doesn’t pay dividends. 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:

So, the issue of dividends or retain earnings back into the business is essential for long-term compounding.

FAQ:

– Why might retaining earnings be better for shareholders?

Retaining earnings can be advantageous if the company has high returns on capital and opportunities to redeploy earnings back into the business at similar or close-to-similar returns. The article emphasizes the importance of investing in companies with such opportunities.

– What is the example provided in the article regarding dividends vs. retained earnings?

The article presents an example involving two identical businesses (Company A and Company B) with the same growth and returns. Company A distributes 50% of earnings as dividends, while Company B reinvests all earnings into the business. The example illustrates the impact on shareholder returns over time.

– How does the allocation of capital affect shareholder returns in the example?

The allocation of capital significantly affects shareholder returns in the example. Company B, which reinvests all earnings, outperforms Company A, resulting in a substantial difference in compound annual growth rates (CAGR) over a 20-year period.

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