What it is:
How it works (Example):
Let's assume Company XYZ has been around for five years. During this time, it reported the following net income:
Year 1: $10,000
Year 2: $5,000
Year 3: -$5,000
Year 4: $1,000
Year 5: -$3,000
Assuming Company XYZ paid no dividends during this time, XYZ's retained earnings equal the sum of its net profits since inception, or in this case, $8,000. In subsequent years, XYZ's retained earnings will change by the amount of each year's net income, less dividends.
The retained earnings statement summarizes changes in retained earnings for a fiscal period, and total retained earnings appear in the shareholders' equity portion of the balance sheet. This means that every dollar of retained earnings means another dollar of shareholders' equity or net worth.
A company's board of directors may appropriate some or all of the company's retained earnings when it wants to restrict dividend distributions to shareholders. Appropriations are usually done at the board's discretion, although bondholders and other circumstances may contractually require the board to do so. Appropriations appear as a special account in the retained earnings section. When an appropriation is no longer needed, it is transferred back to retained earnings. Because retained earnings are not cash, a company may fund appropriations by setting aside cash or marketable securities for the projects indicated in the appropriation.
Why it Matters:
It is important to understand that retained earnings do not represent surplus cash or cash left over after the payment of dividends. Rather, retained earnings demonstrate what a company did with its profits; they are the amount of profit the company has reinvested in the business since its inception. These reinvestments are either asset purchases or liability reductions.
Retained earnings somewhat reflect a company's dividend policy, because they reflect a company's decision to either reinvest profits or pay them out to shareholders. Ultimately, most analyses of retained earnings focus on evaluating which action generated or would generate the highest return for the shareholders.
Most of these analyses involve comparing retained earnings per share to profit per share over a specific period, or they compare the amount of capital retained to the change in share price during that time. Both of these methods attempt to measure the return management generated on the profits it plowed back into the business. Look-through earnings, a method that accounts for taxes and was developed by Warren Buffett, is also used in this vein.
Capital-intensive industries and growing industries tend to retain more of their earnings than other industries because they require more asset investment just to operate. Also, because retained earnings represent the sum of profits less dividends since inception, older companies may report significantly higher retained earnings than identical younger ones. This is why comparison of retained earnings is difficult but generally most meaningful among companies of the same age and within the same industry, and the definition of "high" or "low" retained earnings should be made within this context.