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What Is Equity?

Equity, typically referred to as shareholders’ equity (or owners’ equity for privately held companies), represents the amount of money that would be returned to a company’s shareholders if all of the assets were liquidated and all of the company’s debt was paid off in the case of liquidation. In the case of acquisition, it is the value of company sales minus any liabilities owed by the company not transferred with the sale.

In addition, shareholder equity can represent the book value of a company. Equity can sometimes be offered as payment-in-kind. It also represents the pro-rata ownership of a company’s shares. Equity can be found on a company’s balance sheet and is one of the most common pieces of data employed by analysts to assess a company’s financial health.


How Shareholder Equity Works

By comparing concrete numbers reflecting everything the company owns and everything it owes, the “assets-minus-liabilities” shareholder equity equation paints a clear picture of a company’s finances, easily interpreted by investors and analysts. Equity is used as capital raised by a company, which is then used to purchase assets, invest in projects, and fund operations. A firm typically can raise capital by issuing debt (in the form of a loan or via bonds) or equity (by selling stock). Investors usually seek out equity investments as it provides a greater opportunity to share in the profits and growth of a firm.

Equity is important because it represents the value of an investor’s stake in a company, represented by the proportion of its shares. Owning stock in a company gives shareholders the potential for capital gains and dividends. Owning equity will also give shareholders the right to vote on corporate actions and elections for the board of directors. These equity ownership benefits promote shareholders’ ongoing interest in the company. Shareholder equity can be either negative or positive. If positive, the company has enough assets to cover its liabilities. If negative, the company’s liabilities exceed its assets; if prolonged, this is considered balance sheet insolvency. Typically, investors view companies with negative shareholder equity as risky or unsafe investments. Shareholder equity alone is not a definitive indicator of a company’s financial health; used in conjunction with other tools and metrics, the investor can accurately analyze the health of an organization.


What the Components of Shareholder Equity Are

Retained earnings are part of shareholder equity and are the percentage of net earnings that were not paid to shareholders as dividends. Think of retained earnings as savings since it represents a cumulative total of profits that have been saved and put aside or retained for future use. Retained earnings grow larger over time as the company continues to reinvest a portion of its income.

At some point, the amount of accumulated retained earnings can exceed the amount of equity capital contributed by stockholders. Retained earnings are usually the largest component of stockholders’ equity for companies operating for many years. 

Treasury shares or stock (not to be confused with U.S. Treasury bills) represent stock that the company has bought back from existing shareholders. Companies may do a repurchase when management cannot deploy all of the available equity capital in ways that might deliver the best returns. Shares bought back by companies become treasury shares, and the dollar value is noted in an account called treasury stock, a contra account to the accounts of investor capital and retained earnings. Companies can reissue treasury shares back to stockholders when companies need to raise money. Many view stockholders’ equity as representing a company’s net assets—its net value, so to speak, would be the amount shareholders would receive if the company liquidated all of its assets and repaid all of its debts.

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