Stocks Investment: What Is a "Retained Earnings" Account?

A Special kind of account, called "Retained Earnings" is an interesting and important account. Most business people know it better as "Net Profit". Net Profit is, of course, your total income less your total expenses. For example:

Sales: $1600.00 USD

Cost of stock: $1200.00 USD

Operating expenses: $300.00 USD

Net Profit: $100.00 USD

So, after this series of transactions $100 profit is made. Since net profit is usually the same as retained earnings (they are not always exactly the same and this point is discussed later) and retained earnings is a liability, then it would seem net profit is actually something we don't want...Of course, this liability is a special case. It is not money owed to our suppliers, but money owed to "us" (since the company must issue its profits to its owners). In this case, from our perspective, this is a "good" liability. In reality of course, the company may decide to keep the profit as a reserve because its managers are expecting additional expenses next month, and so on. The Net Profit or retained earnings may be eaten up before the firm gets a chance to issue it to its owners.

From an accountant's perspective, operating a general ledger involves shuffling numbers between sets of asset and liability accounts. Obviously, the higher the numbers on the assets side, the better. These types of accounts are referred to as balance sheet accounts.

One of the key concepts that accountants use to ensure that they don't miss anything when updating account totals is that of balance. Every monetary transaction involves the interaction of at least two accounts. Let's write the above example out again in a form that an accountant would be slightly more happy with:

Sales: $1600.00 + (increase by)

Stock levels: - $1200.00 (decrease by)


$400.00 -

Operating expenses $300.00 (deduct expenses)


Net Profit: $100.00

In the above all the amounts that make up the transaction have been accounted for. Sales have been increased by $1600. We therefore need to offset this $1600 against other accounts that balance to $1600 also. This was achieved by deducting $1200 worth of stock (or increasing the cost of the sale by $1200 depending on how you look at it), increasing operating expenses by $300 and Net Profit the remainder. The principle of balance will be discussed in greater detail in the next section when we get to debits and credits. For now, lets continue to look at retained earnings.

The major problem dealing with only asset and liability accounts is that while they tell us how much we owe and how much we own, they don't tell us how we arrived at this situation. If the retained earnings account holds $10,000 what did we do right to arrive at this figure or if the balance is negative $3000 what did we do wrong?

In order to determine how the final total was made up, it is common accounting practice to expand the retained earnings accounts into income and expenses. Income, revenue or sales are usually thought of as assets and expenses, overheads or costs are thought of as liabilities. However, they are not quite the same thing. We don't really owe money to the "vehicle maintenance" expense account, we owe it to Joe's garage, for example. Likewise, we don't strictly speaking, get money from a sales account, we get it from a customer's account when they pay their bills.

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