Buffett on Berkshire Hathaway Dividend Policy

This article is an excerpt from Warren Buffett’s Letter to Berkshire Shareholders, 1984

Dividend policy is often reported to shareholders but seldom explained. A company will say something like, “Our goal is to pay out 40% of 50% of earnings and to increase dividends at a rate at least equal to the rise in the CPI.” And that’s it – no analysis will be supplied as to why that particular policy is best for the owners of the business. Allocation of capital is crucial to business and investment management. Because it is, we believe managers and owners should think carefully about the circumstances under which earnings should be retained and under which they should be distributed.

The first point to understand is that all profits are not created equal. In many businesses particularly those that have high asset/profit ratios – inflation causes some or all of the reported earnings to become false. The artificial portion – let’s call these earnings “restricted” – cannot if the business is to retain its economic position, be distributed as dividends. Were these earnings to be paid out, the company would lose ground in one or more of the following areas: its ability to maintain its unit volume of sales, its long-term competitive position, its financial strength. No matter how conservative its payout ratio, a company that consistently distributes restricted earnings is destined for oblivion unless equity capital is otherwise infused.

Restricted revenues are seldom valueless to owners, but they often must be discounted heavily. In effect, they are conscripted by the business, no matter how poor its economic potential. (This retention-no-matter-how-unattractive-the-return situation was communicated unwittingly in a marvelously ironic way by Consolidated Edison a decade ago. At the time, a punitive regulatory policy was an important factor causing the company’s stock to sell as low as one-fourth of book value; i.e., every time a dollar of earnings was retained for reinvestment in the business, that dollar was transformed into only 25 cents of market value. But, despite this gold-into-lead process, most profits were reinvested in the business rather than paid to owners. Meanwhile, at construction and maintenance sites throughout New York, signs proudly proclaimed the corporate slogan, “Dig We Must”.)

Restricted earnings need not concern us further in this dividend discussion. Let’s turn to the much-more-valued unrestricted variety. These earnings may, with equal feasibility, be retained or distributed. In our opinion, management should choose whichever course makes greater sense for the owners of the business.

This principle is not universally accepted. For some 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 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 cards 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 money 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 additional investor bonds with market value far less than the cash he could have elected. If he should want 10% bonds, he can only take the money received and buy them in the market, where they will be available at a substantial 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 challenging 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 number. Owners must guess as to what the rate will average over the collective 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 want them paid to you if low returns are the likely outcome of reinvestment.
Many corporate managers reason very much along these lines in determining whether subsidiaries should distribute earnings to their parent company. At that level, The managers have no trouble thinking like responsible owners. But payout decisions at the parent company level often are a different story. Here managers frequently have trouble putting themselves in the shoes of their shareholder-owners.

With this schizoid approach, the CEO of a multi-divisional company will instruct Subsidiary A, whose earnings on incremental capital may be expected to average 5%, to distribute all available earnings so that they may be invested in Subsidiary B, whose earnings on additional capital are projected to be 15%. The CEO’s business school oath will allow no lesser behavior. But if his long-term record with additional capital is 5% – and market rates are 10% – he is likely to impose a dividend policy on shareholders of the parent company that merely follows some historical or industry-wide payout pattern. Furthermore, he will expect managers of subsidiaries to give him a full account as to why it makes sense for earnings to be retained in their operations rather than distributed to the parent-owner. But seldom will he supply his owners with a similar analysis about the whole company.

In judging whether managers should retain earnings, shareholders should not only compare total incremental earnings in recent years to complete additional capital because that relationship may be distorted by what is going on in a core business. During an inflationary period, companies with a core business characterized by extraordinary economics can use small amounts of incremental capital in that business at very high rates of return (as was discussed in last year’s section on Goodwill). But, unless they are experiencing tremendous unit growth, outstanding businesses by definition generate significant amounts of excess cash. If a company sinks most of this money in other firms that earn low returns, the company’s overall return on retained capital may nevertheless appear excellent because of the extraordinary profits being received by the portion of earnings incrementally invested in the core business. The situation is analogous to a Pro-Am golf event: even if all of the amateurs are hopeless duffers, the team’s best-ball score will be respectable because of the dominating skills of the professional.

Many corporations that consistently show good returns both on equity and on overall incremental capital have, indeed, employed a large portion of their retained earnings on an economically unattractive, even disastrous, basis. Their marvelous core businesses, however, whose earnings grow year after year, camouflage repeated failures in capital allocation elsewhere (usually involving high-priced acquisitions of companies that have inherently mediocre economics). The managers at fault periodically report on the lessons they have learned from the latest disappointment. They then usually seek out future lessons. (Failure seems to go to their heads.)

In such cases, shareholders would be far better off if earnings were retained only to expand the high-return business, with the balance paid in dividends or used to repurchase stock (an action that increases the owners’ interest in the exceptional business while sparing them participation in subpar companies). Managers of high-return businesses who consistently employ much of the cash thrown off by those businesses in other ventures with low returns should be held to account for those allocation decisions, regardless of how profitable the overall enterprise is.Nothing in this discussion is intended to argue for dividends that bounce around from quarter to quarter with each wiggle in earnings or investment opportunities. Shareholders of public corporations understandably prefer that dividends be consistent and predictable. Payments, therefore, should reflect long-term expectations for both earnings and returns on incremental capital. Since the long-term corporate outlook changes only rarely, dividend patterns should change no more often. But over time distributable earnings that have been withheld by managers should earn their keep. If earnings have been unwisely retained, it is likely that managers, too, have been unwisely retained.

Let’s now turn to Berkshire Hathaway and examine how these dividend principles apply to it. Historically, Berkshire has earned well over market rates on retained earnings, thereby creating over one dollar of market value for every dollar retained. Under such circumstances, any distribution would have been contrary to the financial interest of shareholders, large or small.

In fact, significant distributions in the early years might have been disastrous, as a review of our starting position will show you. Charlie and I then controlled and managed three companies, Berkshire Hathaway Inc., Diversified Retailing Company, Inc., and Blue Chip Stamps (all now merged into our present operation). Blue Chip paid only a small dividend, Berkshire and DRC paid nothing. If, instead, the companies had paid out their entire earnings, we almost certainly would have no earnings at all now – and perhaps no capital as well. The three companies each originally made their money from a single business: (1) textiles at Berkshire; (2) department stores at Diversified; and (3) trading stamps at Blue Chip. These cornerstone activities (carefully chosen, it should be noted, by your Chairman and Vice Chairman) have, respectively, (1) survived but earned almost nothing, (2) contracted in size while incurring significant losses, and (3) shrunk in sales volume to about 5% its size at the time of our entry. (Who says “you can’t lose ‘em all”?) Only by committing available funds to much better businesses were we able to overcome these origins. (It’s been like overcoming a misspent youth.) Apparently, diversification has served us well.

We expect to continue to diversify while also supporting the growth of current operations, though, as we’ve pointed out, our returns from these efforts will surely be below our historical returns. But as long as prospective returns are above the rate required to produce a dollar of market value per dollar retained, we will continue to keep all earnings. Should our estimate of future returns fall below that point, we will distribute all unrestricted revenues that we believe can not be used. In making that judgment, we will look at both our historical record and our prospects. Because our year-to-year results are inherently volatile, we believe a five-year rolling average to be appropriate for judging the historical record.

Our present plan is to use our retained earnings further to build the capital of our insurance companies. Most of our competitors are in weakened financial condition and reluctant to expand substantially. Large premium-volume gains for the industry are imminent, amounting probably to well over $15 billion in 1985 versus less than $5 billion in 1983. These circumstances could produce major amounts of profitable business for us. Of course, this result is no sure thing, but prospects for it are far better than they have been for many years.