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Retained Earnings in Accounting and What They Can Tell You

Written by
Aaron Oh
Published on
February 19, 2024

As a business owner, investor, or accounting professional, it is important for you to have a good understanding of the concept of retained earnings. This is not just a term thrown around in the boardrooms; it's a critical indicator of a company's financial health. But what exactly are retained earnings? And why should you care about them? In this article, we explore the importance of retained earnings, how to calculate it and some factors that affect the retained earnings of a company. 

What is Retained Earnings?

Retained earnings is the income that a business decides to keep after it has paid out dividends to its shareholders. These earnings are reinvested back into the company for growth or to pay off debt. It is essentially the company's profit over the course of a year minus any dividends or payments made to investors.

The information about a company’s retained earnings is usually presented in the statement of retained earnings, a part of the company's financial statements. This statement shows the opening balance, additions to and deductions from the retained earnings, and the closing balance. It provides a clear picture of how the company's revenues are managed and is an essential metric for investors and analysts to understand to generate profit and fund operations without external financing.

What is the Importance of Retained Earnings?

Retained earnings reflect a company's financial health. It indicates the total amount of net income that a company has chosen to reinvest in itself rather than release to shareholders as dividends. This reinvestment can be used for various purposes, including debt repayment, business expansion, and product development. Essentially, retained earnings represent a company's ability to self-finance, which is an important sign of long-term viability and growth potential without seeking additional debt or equity financing.

The statement of retained earnings informs stakeholders about how a corporation manages its profits. This statement provides a clear picture of a company's financial actions and goals by describing the changes in retained earnings over a given period. For example, a constant increase in retained earnings may indicate the company is reinvesting more in its growth ambitions. In contrast, a decrease could indicate hefty dividend distributions or financial difficulties. As a result, comprehending this financial statement is essential for investors and creditors when determining a company's fiscal responsibility and prospects.

How to Calculate Retained Earnings

Calculating retained earnings is straightforward and requires a simple formula. 

The retained earnings formula is: Beginning Retained Earnings + Net Income - Dividends = Ending Retained Earnings.

Retained earnings debit or credit can be calculated as follows. Begin with the retained earnings balance at the start of the period, as shown on your previous year's balance sheet. Then, add the net income (or loss) from the current period's income statement. This step is part of creating a retained earnings journal entry, which records the transfer of net income (or net loss amount) to the retained earnings account at the end of a financial period.

Next, subtract from this total any dividends paid to shareholders during the period. The result of this calculation is the retained earnings, which is the updated balance that will be carried forward to the following period's retained earnings balance sheet.

Retained Earnings Example

Let's look at a hypothetical company named ABC Ltd. ABC Ltd had $500,000 in retained earnings at the beginning period of the year. During the year, the company earned a net income of $200,000 and distributed $50,000 in dividends.

Let's break down the retained earnings calculation for ABC Ltd:

  • Beginning Retained Earnings: At the start of the year, ABC Ltd had $500,000.
  • Net Income: The company's annual net income was $200,000.
  • Dividends: ABC Ltd decided to pay out $50,000 in dividends to its shareholders this year.
  • Ending Retained Earnings: By applying the formula (Beginning Retained Earnings + Net Income - Dividends), we can determine that ABC Ltd.’s retained earnings at the end of the year will be $650,000. This is calculated as $500,000 (starting) + $200,000 (net income) - $50,000 (dividends).

What Does High Retained Earnings Mean?

To understand retained earnings meaning, keep in mind that when a company has high retained earnings, it usually means that it is profitable and keeps a sizable portion of its profits for reinvestment or debt repayment. This can be a good sign because it suggests that the company has enough resources to invest in future growth without borrowing or raising more capital. High retained earnings can also boost long-term shareholder value, as reinvesting profits in promising growth areas or reducing debt can result in a stronger, more financially stable company with higher earnings potential.

What Does Negative Retained Earnings Mean?

In contrast, negative retained earnings indicate that a company's accumulated deficit exceeds its accrued profit. This could be due to the company consistently incurring losses or paying out more in dividends than it earns. Negative retained earnings is a red flag for investors because it suggests a company's inability to generate profits. Such a financial position may also limit the company's ability to invest in growth opportunities, potentially impeding its development and reducing market competitiveness.

Factors That Can Affect Retained Earnings

Several factors can influence a company's retained earnings. These include the company's dividend policy, the company's age, and the business's seasonality.

Dividend Policy

A company that pays out a significant portion of its earnings in dividends will have lower retained earnings than one that keeps most of its earnings. Companies with high dividend payouts are often mature and stable, whereas those that keep a large portion of their earnings are typically growth oriented. Dividend policy adjustments in response to financial performance or market conditions can also have a dynamic impact on retained earnings, reflecting a company's strategic approach to balancing shareholder returns with reinvestment needs.

Age of Company

A company's age significantly impacts its retained earnings, primarily due to its stage in the business lifecycle. Young companies, often in the growth stage, are likelier to report lower retained earnings. This is because they may reinvest most of their earnings back into the business to drive growth, or they may not yet be making significant profits. 

As businesses mature and stabilize their cash flow, their profitability typically rises, resulting in higher retained earnings if they choose to keep a portion of these profits rather than distribute them as dividends. However, mature companies may pay higher dividends to shareholders, reflecting their stable cash flows and reduced need for reinvestment, which can limit retained earnings growth.

Seasonality of Business

Retained earnings can also be affected by the seasonality of a business. This can result in fluctuating profits for companies with significant seasonal variations in sales, such as retail companies that experience a surge during holiday seasons or agricultural businesses that rely on harvest periods. During peak seasons, these companies may see higher profits, potentially increasing their retained earnings if they do not distribute all of these profits as dividends.

However, during off-peak seasons, these businesses may struggle to maintain their retained earnings when sales and profits are lower. They may need to dip into retained earnings to cover operational costs or invest in marketing and inventory before the next peak season. This cyclical pattern demands accurate financial planning to manage retained earnings and operating expenses throughout the year while maintaining sustainability and growth.

Retained Earnings vs Dividends

Retained earnings are profits held in the company for reinvestment, whereas dividends are a portion of profits distributed to shareholders. Companies with high retained earnings typically invest more in expansion, whereas those with large dividends return more profits to shareholders. This balance between preserving earnings for reinvestment and paying dividends demonstrates a company's current financial health, future development potential, and dedication to generating shareholder value.

Retained Earnings vs. Revenue

While revenue is the total income generated by the sale of goods and services, retained earnings are the portion of the company's net income after paying dividends to its shareholders. Revenue indicates a company's ability to sell its goods and services and is frequently used as a performance metric. In contrast, retained earnings provide a more comprehensive picture of financial health, demonstrating profitability and the company's long-term strategy of reinvesting profits for growth or debt reduction.

Retained Earnings vs. Profit

Profit, or net income, is the company's financial gain after deducting all expenses, taxes, and costs from total revenue. It is a snapshot of your company's profitability over a specific period. Retained earnings, on the other hand, represent the total profits reinvested in your company rather than paid out to shareholders as dividends. This reinvestment is vital for funding new projects, or debt repayment and demonstrates a commitment to the company's sustainability.

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About the author
Aaron Oh
is a seasoned content writer specialising in finance, insurance and tech industries. With a writing history at S&P Global, EdgeProp, Indeed, Prudential, and others, Aaron leverages finance knowledge and business insights to help businesses improve productivity and performance.
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