The value to Berkshire Hathaway of retained earnings is not determined by whether we own 100%, 50%, 20% or 1% of the businesses in which they reside. Rather, the value of those retained earnings is determined by the use to which they are put and the subsequent level of earnings produced by that usage.
(We can’t resist pausing here for a short commercial. One usage of retained earnings we often greet with special enthusiasm when practiced by companies in which we have an investment interest is repurchase of their own shares. The reasoning is simple: if a fine business is selling in the market place for far less than intrinsic value, what more certain or more profitable utilization of capital can there be than significant enlargement of the interests of all owners at that bargain price? The competitive nature of corporate acquisition activity almost guarantees the payment of a full – frequently more than full price when a company buys the entire ownership of another enterprise. But the auction nature of security markets often allows finely-run companies the opportunity to purchase portions of their own businesses at a price under 50% of that needed to acquire the same earning power through the negotiated acquisition of another enterprise.)
Explicit income taxes alone, unaccompanied by any implicit inflation tax, never can turn a positive corporate return into a negative owner return. (Even if there were 90% personal income tax rates on both dividends and capital gains, some real income would be left for the owner at a zero inflation rate.) But the inflation tax is not limited by reported income. Inflation rates not far from those recently experienced can turn the level of positive returns achieved by a majority of corporations into negative returns for all owners, including those not required to pay explicit taxes. (For example, if inflation reached 16%, owners of the 60% plus of corporate America earning less than this rate of return would be realizing a negative real return – even if income taxes on dividends and capital gains were eliminated.)
Under all circumstances we plan to operate with plenty of liquidity, with debt that is moderate in size and properly structured, and with an abundance of capital strength. Our return on equity is penalized somewhat by this conservative approach, but it is the only one with which we feel comfortable.
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