Thursday, January 13, 2011

Buffett: "Restricted" vs "Unrestricted" Earnings - Berkshire Shareholder Letter Highlights

This previous post, Turning Gold into Lead, covers why Warren Buffett thinks all earnings are not created equal calling the inferior variety "restricted earnings".

In the following excerpt, also from the 1984 Berkshire Hathaway (BRKashareholder letter, Buffett covers the exact opposite type of earnings: "unrestricted".

Here's his explanation of how unrestricted earnings should be treated:

"For a number of reasons managers like to withhold unrestricted, readily distributable earnings from shareholders - to expand the corporate empire over which the managers rule, to operate from a position of exceptional financial comfort, etc. But we believe there is only one valid reason for retention. Unrestricted earnings should be retained only when there is a reasonable prospect - backed preferably by historical evidence or, when appropriate, by a thoughtful analysis of the future - that for every dollar retained by the corporation, at least one dollar of market value will be created for owners. This will happen only if the capital retained produces incremental earnings equal to, or above, those generally available to investors.

To illustrate, let’s assume that an investor owns a risk-free 10% perpetual bond with one very unusual feature. Each year the investor can elect either to take his 10% coupon in cash, or to reinvest the coupon in more 10% bonds with identical terms; i.e., a perpetual life and coupons offering the same cash-or-reinvest option. If, in any given year, the prevailing interest rate on long-term, risk-free bonds is 5%, it would be foolish for the investor to take his coupon in cash since the 10% bonds he could instead choose would be worth considerably more than 100 cents on the dollar. Under these circumstances, the investor wanting to get his hands on cash should take his coupon in additional bonds and then immediately sell them. By doing that, he would realize more cash than if he had taken his coupon directly in cash. Assuming all bonds were held by rational investors, no one would opt for cash in an era of 5% interest rates, not even those bondholders needing cash for living purposes.

If, however, interest rates were 15%, no rational investor would want his money invested for him at 10%. Instead, the investor would choose to take his coupon in cash, even if his personal cash needs were nil. The opposite course - reinvestment of the coupon - would give an investor additional bonds with market value far less than the cash he could have elected. If he should want 10% bonds, he can simply take the cash received and buy them in the market, where they will be available at a large discount.

An analysis similar to that made by our hypothetical bondholder is appropriate for owners in thinking about whether a company’s unrestricted earnings should be retained or paid out. Of course, the analysis is much more difficult and subject to error because the rate earned on reinvested earnings is not a contractual figure, as in our bond case, but rather a fluctuating figure. Owners must guess as to what the rate will average over the intermediate future. However, once an informed guess is made, the rest of the analysis is simple: you should wish your earnings to be reinvested if they can be expected to earn high returns, and you should wish them paid to you if low returns are the likely outcome of reinvestment."

For many years Berkshire Hathaway has been able to earn far better than market returns on the earnings it retains. Much of those returns came down to Buffett's enormous skill. It made sense to not pay a dividend.

Today, considering Berkshire Hathaway's size, how long before it cannot put those earnings to good use and earn a greater than market rate of return with all of the dollars?

It could be a while yet, but it seems likely that the distribution of at least a small portion of its sizable quantity of unrestricted earnings in the form of dividends will need to begin.

Adam

Long BRKb
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