During the first half of the 20th century, Wall Street believed that companies existed primarily to pay dividends to shareholders. However, over the past 50 years, society has witnessed the acceptance of the more sophisticated notion that the profits not paid out as dividends, but reinvested in the business, also increase shareholder wealth by expanding the company's operations through organic growth and acquisitions or strengthening the shareholder's position through debt reduction or share repurchase programs.
Berkshire Hathaway Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett created a metric for the average investor known as "look-through earnings" to account for both the money paid out to investors and the money retained by the business.
The theory behind the look-through earnings concept is that all corporate profits benefit shareholders, whether they are paid out as cash dividends or plowed back into the company. Successful investing, according to Buffett, is purchasing the most look-through earnings at the lowest cost and allowing the portfolio to appreciate over time.
- Warren Buffett created the look-through earnings metric to account for an investor's full profits—both retained and paid out as dividends.
- Look-through earnings models how much after-tax cash an investor would have if the companies paid out 100% of the reported profit.
- Investors can also use look-through earnings as a tool to decide whether to buy or sell a stock in spite of price fluctuations.
- The cost method of accounting in common practice with corporations can create financial statement blind spots for the average investor.
Calculating Look-Through Earnings
Normally, a company reports basic and diluted earnings per share, and a portion of the profit is paid out to shareholders in the form of a cash dividend. For example, suppose Company ABC reported diluted earnings per share of $25 for the fiscal year and paid a $7 cash dividend to shareholders. This means $18 was reinvested into the core business.
Ignoring stock price fluctuation, an investor who owned 100 shares of Company ABC's common stock would have received $700 in cash dividends at the end of one year (100 shares x $7 per share dividend). The $1,800 that "belonged" to the shareholder and was reinvested in Company ABC's business had genuine economic value and couldn't be ignored, although it was never actually received directly. In theory, the reinvested profit would have resulted in a higher stock price over time.
Buffett's look-through earnings metric attempts to fully account for all of the profits that belong to an investor—both those retained and those paid out as dividends. Look-through earnings can be calculated by taking an investor's pro-rated share of a company's profits and deducting the taxes that would be due if all profits were received as cash dividends.
Scenario: John Smith's Portfolio
To illustrate this point, assume John Smith, an average investor, has a portfolio consisting of two securities: Walmart and Coca-Cola. Both of these companies pay a portion of their earnings out as dividends, but if John were only to regard the cash dividends received as income, he would ignore most of the money that was accruing to his benefit. To truly see how his investments are performing, John needs to calculate his look-through earnings. In effect, he is answering the question of how much after-tax cash he would have today if the companies were to pay out 100% of the reported profit.
Stock Position 1: Walmart
Suppose Walmart reported diluted earnings per share of $2.03, John's dividends are taxed at 15%, and he owns 5,000 shares of Walmart. His look-through earnings would be the following:
$2.03 diluted earnings x 5,000 shares = $10,150 pre-tax
$10,150 x (1 – 0.15 tax rate) = $8,627.50.
Stock Position 2: Coca-Cola
Suppose Coca-Cola reported diluted earnings per share of $1.00, and John owns 12,000 shares of the company’s common stock. His look-through earnings would be the following:
$1.00 diluted earnings x 12,000 shares = $12,000 pre-tax
$12,000 x (1 – 0.15 tax rate) = $10,200.
John's Look-Through Earnings
By calculating the total look-through earnings generated by his stock holdings, we discover that John has look-through earnings of $18,827.50 after-tax ($8,627.50 + $10,200). It would be a mistake for him only to pay attention to the $6,630 that was received as cash dividends on an after-tax basis; the other $12,197.50 that had been plowed back into the two companies was accruing to his benefit.
Buy and Sell Decisions
John should only sell his Coca-Cola or Walmart positions and move into another company if he is convinced that another investment opportunity will allow him to purchase substantially more look-through earnings, and that company enjoys the same sort of stability in earnings due to regulation or competitive position.
Benjamin Graham, father of value investing and author of Security Analysis and The Intelligent Investor, recommended that the investor insist on at least 20% to 30% additional earnings to justify selling one position and moving into another.
Furthermore, John needs to evaluate his investment performance by the operating results of the business, not the stock quote. If his look-through earnings are steadily growing, and management maintains a shareholder-friendly orientation, the stock price is only a concern in that it will allow him to purchase additional shares at an attractive price. The fluctuations are merely due to the lunacy of the market.
The $18,827.50 in look-through earnings John calculated is every bit as real to his wealth as if he owned a car wash, apartment building, or pharmacy. By investing from a business perspective, John is better able to make intelligent decisions rather than emotional ones. As long as the competitive position of either company has not changed, John should view significant drops in the prices of Walmart and Coca-Cola's common stocks as opportunities to acquire additional look-through earnings at a bargain price.
Many corporations invest in other businesses. Under Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), the earnings of these investment holdings are reported in one of three ways: cost method, equity method, or consolidated method. The cost method is applied to holdings that represent under 20% voting control—it only accounts for dividends received by the investing corporation.
This shortcoming is what caused Buffett to expound on the undistributed earnings in his shareholder letters. Berkshire Hathaway, both then and now, had substantial investments in companies such as Coca-Cola, The Washington Post, Gillette, and American Express. These companies pay out only a small portion of their overall earnings in the form of dividends. As a result, Berkshire Hathaway was accruing far more wealth to owners than was evident in the financial statements.
Calculation of cash dividends on an after-tax basis
$0.36 per share cash dividends x 5,000 shares = $1,800
$1,800 x [1 – 0.15 tax rate] = $1,530 after-taxes
$0.50 per share cash dividends x 12,000 shares = $6,000
$6,000 x [1 – 0.15 tax rate] = $5,100 after-taxes
$1,530 + $5,100 = $6,630 total after-tax cash dividends received.