Ambev vs. Anheuser-Busch: A Primer on Retained Earnings

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In my last article, I recommended Brazilian beermaker Ambev (ABV). In the comments section an argument was made that Ambev’s parent company Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD) was in fact the better beer buy. The concern generally centered on Ambev’s growth prospects and hence its valuation. For the same reason why a company like Pepsi (PEP) commands a historic P/E around 20 with growth rates in the single digits, I propose that Ambev is worthy of a higher multiple not just for its growth potential but for management’s ability to efficiently and profitably reinvest earnings in the business.
If I make a dollar on every widget I sell, ideally I take that dollar and reinvest it in new capacity, enter new markets or stoke demand for my products in existing markets. What I don’t want is to spend that dollar on replacing plants and equipment, paying off piles of debt or defending myself against lawsuits because my widget causes measles. There’s a case often made that debt repayment can drive profitability when your cost of capital is greater than your return on equity, but this isn’t the kind of dynamic I’m interested in as a long-term investor in a business. It’s instructive here to crunch some numbers to determine which of our companies is the better capital allocator.
Between 2002 and 2010, Ambev earned a grand total of 9.96 Brazilian Reals per share (approx. $6.40USD at current rates). During that same time the company paid out 7.10 Reals ($4.56USD) in dividends. This leaves 2.86 in retained earnings, which were plowed back into the business. Earnings per share were .66 in 2002 and 2.44 in 2010 with the incremental profit equaling 1.78 (2.44 – .66). Utilizing only 2.86 in retained earnings, the company realized a 62% return (1.78 / 2.86). This is a company firing on all cylinders and driving shareholder value at every turn. Now for Papa BUD.
Over the same period, Anheuser-Busch InBev earned $21.99 per share. The company paid out one .39 dividend in 2010 leaving 21.60 in cumulative retained earnings to reinvest. Earnings per share were $1.12 in 2002 and $2.50 in 2010 with the incremental profit equaling 1.38 (2.50 – 1.12). Utilizing 21.60 in retained earnings, the company was only able to realize a 6.4% return (1.38 / 21.60).
Whatever the company is doing with its earnings (a discussion for another time), they are not delivering the incremental profit and this is what the smart investor demands.