Negative Retained Earnings: Causes And Consequences

Negative retained earnings can be a challenging situation for any company, signaling a history of net losses surpassing its accumulated net income.

Various factors such as increased expenses, declining sales, poor management decisions, or economic downturns can contribute to this predicament.

The implications of negative retained earnings encompass financial distress, diminished borrowing capacity, and decreased investor confidence.

To mitigate these risks, companies must diligently monitor their retained earnings and adopt appropriate measures to avoid negative balances.

This article provides a comprehensive exploration of what is negative retained earnings, including illustrative examples, the location of such figures on a balance sheet, the impact on dividend payments, and effective strategies for rectifying negative retained profits.

We will also explore what affects retained earnings and how companies can mitigate the risks associated with negative balances.

By delving into the causes, consequences, and practical solutions associated with this financial scenario, companies can fortify their fiscal resilience and nurture investor trust.

Table of Contents

What Are Negative Retained Earnings?

Negative retained earnings occur when a company has accumulated net losses over time, and these losses have exceeded the amount of net income earned by the company.

When a company generates more profits than it distributes as dividends, the remaining amount is added to its retained earnings.

However, if a company experiences losses, its retained earnings can decrease, and if those losses exceed the accumulated retained earnings, it will result in negative retained earnings.

Negative retained earnings can occur due to a variety of reasons such as increased expenses, declining sales, poor management decisions, or economic downturns. It can indicate financial distress, reduced borrowing capacity, and a lower level of investor confidence in the company.

Therefore, it is essential for companies to monitor their retained earnings regularly and take appropriate measures to avoid negative retained earnings.

Examples Of Negative Retained Earnings

Negative retained earnings refer to a situation where the company has not made enough profits to cover its expenses and dividends over a certain period of time. Here are some examples to better understand this concept:

  • Example 1

    Let’s say a company has been consistently losing money over the years, and its total losses amount to $500,000.

    However, the company has only generated $400,000 in profits during that same period. In this case, the company’s retained earnings would be negative, reflecting a deficit of $100,000.

  • Example 2

    Another example is when a company incurs significant losses in a particular year. For instance, a company may have generated profits of $300,000 in the previous year and had retained earnings of $500,000.

    However, the following year, the company suffers a significant loss of $700,000. In this case, the retained earnings of the company will be negative by $200,000.

  • Example 3

    A startup company that is still in the early stages of development is another example. It is common for startups to experience losses in their initial years due to high initial costs and low sales volumes.

    If the losses incurred by a startup company exceed its retained earnings, the result is negative retained earnings.

Where to Find Negative Retained Earnings

Negative retained earnings can typically be found in a company’s financial statements, particularly on the balance sheet.

To locate accumulated deficit, follow these steps:

  • Obtain the company’s latest financial statements: You can usually find them on the company’s official website, in their annual reports, or through financial databases.
  • Look for the balance sheet: Retained earnings are reported under the shareholder’s equity section of the balance sheet.
  • Locate the retained earnings line item: It may be labeled as “Retained Earnings” or “Accumulated Deficit.” This represents the cumulative profits or losses from previous years.
  • Note the value: Retained losses will be indicated by a negative number or shown in parentheses.

Can a Company with Negative Retained Earnings Pay a Dividend?

In general, a company with negative retained earnings cannot pay a dividend. Retained earnings represent the accumulated profits or losses of a company over its lifetime, which are typically reinvested into the business or used to cover losses.

If a company has accumulated a deficit, it means that its accumulated losses exceed its accumulated profits.

Dividends are typically paid out of a company’s profits, specifically from its retained earnings or current year’s earnings.

Since a company with negative retained profits does not have any profits available, it would not have the financial capacity to distribute dividends to its shareholders.

Paying dividends when a company has Negative accumulated earnings would further erode its equity and could raise concerns about the company’s financial health.

In most jurisdictions, there are legal restrictions and regulations in place to prevent companies from paying dividends if they do not meet certain financial criteria, including having sufficient profits or retained earnings.

It’s worth noting that there may be exceptional circumstances or specific legal provisions that could allow a company with a deficit in retained earnings to pay dividends, but such cases would be rare and typically require approval from relevant regulatory bodies or shareholders.

How To Fix Negative Retained Earnings?

Negative accumulated earnings can pose significant challenges for companies, affecting their financial stability and growth prospects.

However, there are several actionable steps that businesses can take to address this issue and improve their financial position. In this section, we will explore key strategies on how to fix negative retained earnings.

  • Review Financial Statements

    Review the company’s financial statements, including the income statement, balance sheet, and statement of cash flows, to identify the root cause of the negative retained earnings.

  • Cut Costs

    Identify areas where costs can be reduced to improve profitability. This may involve reducing overhead expenses, negotiating better prices with suppliers, or eliminating unprofitable products or services.

  • Increase Revenue

    Develop strategies to increase sales revenue, such as expanding into new markets or launching new products. This may require investing in marketing campaigns or hiring additional sales staff.

  • Improve Operations

    Identify inefficiencies in the company’s operations and implement process improvements to increase efficiency and reduce costs.

  • Raise Capital

    Consider raising additional capital through equity or debt financing to increase cash reserves and provide funds for investment in growth opportunities.

  • Declare A Stock Dividend

    A stock dividend is a distribution of additional shares to shareholders instead of cash. This can improve the company’s financial position by reducing the retained earnings deficit while avoiding the need for cash outflows.

  • Seek Professional Assistance

    If the company’s financial situation is particularly challenging, seeking professional assistance from an accountant, financial advisor, or turnaround specialist may be necessary.

Causes of Negative Retained Earnings

Understanding what affects retained earnings is crucial for businesses to identify the root causes of their financial challenges and implement effective solutions.

Delving into the following common explanations can provide valuable insights into why is retained earnings negative:

  • Losses from Operations

    The most common cause of negative retained profits is losses from operations. This occurs when a company’s expenses exceed its revenues, resulting in net losses.

    These net losses are subtracted from the company’s retained earnings, leading to retained losses.

  • Large Capital Expenditures

    Large capital expenditures can also result in negative retained earnings. These expenditures can include investments in new equipment, facilities, or technology.

    While these investments may be necessary for the company’s growth and development, they can also result in a reduction in retained earnings.

  • Poor Financial Planning and Decisions

    Poor financial planning and decisions can also lead to negative retained profits. This can include mismanagement of funds, poor investment decisions, or excessive spending.

  • Dividing Too Much Profit to Shareholders

    Dividing too much profit to shareholders can also result in depleted retained earnings. If a company pays out more in dividends than it earns in profits, it will have to dip into its retained earnings to make up the difference. If this continues over time, it can lead to negative equity reserves.

Consequences of Negative Retained Earnings

  • Impact on the Balance Sheet and Income Statement

    The accumulated deficit can have a significant impact on a company’s balance sheet and income statement. It can reduce the amount of equity a company has, which can make it more difficult to obtain financing.

    It can also lead to a reduction in the company’s net income, which can impact its ability to pay off debts and invest in new opportunities.

  • Limitations on Expansion Plans and Investments

    Negative retained profits can also limit a company’s ability to expand and invest in new opportunities. This is because the company may not have the necessary funds to finance these activities or lenders and investors may be hesitant to provide financing due to the company’s financial position.

  • Difficulty in Obtaining Financing from Lenders or Investors

    Retained losses can also make it difficult for a company to obtain financing from lenders or investors. This is because lenders and investors may view the company as a greater risk due to its negative financial position.

  • Lower Earnings per Share (EPS) Value

    Negative accumulated earnings can also lead to a lower earnings per share (EPS) value. This is because the company’s net income is reduced, which means that the earnings are spread out over a larger number of shares.

  • Damage to Credibility with Shareholders and Creditors

    Deficit in retained earnings can also damage a company’s credibility with shareholders and creditors. This is because it indicates that the company has not been profitable and may be experiencing financial difficulties.

Strategies for Improving Negative Retained Earnings

  • Reevaluate Financial Policies and Objectives

    One strategy for improving accumulated deficits is to reevaluate financial policies and objectives. This can include reviewing expenses, identifying areas for cost reduction, and developing a plan for increasing revenues.

  • Cost Reduction and Efficiency Improvement

    Another strategy for improving negative accumulated earnings is to focus on cost reduction and efficiency improvement. This can include reducing unnecessary expenses, streamlining operations, and improving productivity.

  • Revenue Growth Initiatives

    Revenue growth initiatives can also be effective in improving negative retained earnings. This can include developing new products or services, entering new markets, or increasing sales through marketing and advertising.

  • Debt Restructuring and Financing Options

    Debt restructuring and financing options can also be effective in improving deficits in retained earnings. This can include renegotiating debt terms, seeking out new financing sources, or exploring alternative financing options.

  • Dividend and Capital Management

    Dividend and capital management can also be effective in improving negative retained profits. This can include reducing or suspending dividends, repurchasing shares, or issuing new shares to raise capital.

How Negative Retained Earnings Impact Business

It can have several implications for a business:

  • Financial Health

    Retained losses indicate that the company has accumulated losses over time, which can be a sign of financial distress. It suggests that the company’s expenses or losses have exceeded its revenues or profits. This can raise concerns among investors, creditors, and other stakeholders about the company’s ability to generate profits and meet its financial obligations.

  • Funding Challenges

    Negative retained earnings can make it more difficult for a company to secure financing or raise capital. Lenders and investors may view negative retained profits as a red flag, indicating a higher level of risk.

    It may lead to higher borrowing costs, reduced access to credit, or reluctance from investors to provide additional funds.

  • Shareholder Value

    Accumulated deficit can negatively impact shareholder value. Since retained earnings represent a portion of a company’s profits that is reinvested back into the business, retained losses imply a reduction in the company’s net worth.

    This can result in a decline in the company’s stock price and lower returns for shareholders.

  • Regulatory and Legal Compliance

    In many jurisdictions, there are regulations and legal requirements in place that govern the payment of dividends, financial reporting, and shareholder protection.

    Negative accumulated earnings may raise compliance concerns and may limit a company’s ability to engage in certain activities, such as share buybacks or dividend distributions.

  • Business Operations

    Deficit in retained earnings can impact a company’s ability to invest in growth initiatives, research, and development, acquisitions, or capital expenditures.

    Limited financial resources may restrict a company’s ability to expand, innovate, or compete effectively in the market.

Can Retained Earnings be Negative?

Can Retained Earnings be Negative? The answer is Yes, retained earnings can be negative in certain circumstances. Retained earnings represent the cumulative net profits or losses of a company that are reinvested back into the business rather than distributed to shareholders as dividends.

So, the next question is why is retained earnings negative? Retained earnings become negative when a company’s losses surpass its profits, leading to a negative balance.

This negative figure signifies that the company has accumulated more losses than profits, highlighting potential financial distress and a lack of profitability.

Does Retained Earnings Have a Credit Balance?

Yes, retained earnings typically have a credit balance. Retained earnings is a cumulative account on the balance sheet that represents the accumulated net profits or losses of a company since its inception, minus any dividends distributed to shareholders.

Since net profits increase the overall equity of the company, they are recorded as a credit to the retained earnings account.

However, if a company incurs net losses or distributes dividends that exceed its accumulated profits, the retained earnings account can have a debit balance, indicating a negative value.

In general, though, retained earnings are expected to have a credit balance, reflecting the company’s accumulated profits over time.

Case Studies of Companies with Negative Retained Earnings

Retained Earnings

Company 12/30/2022 12/30/2021 12/30/2020 12/30/2019
Uber Technologies Inc (UBER) -$32.76M -$23.62M -$23.13M -$16.26M
Tesla Inc (TSLA)  $12.88M $0.33M -$5.39M -$6.08M
Snap Inc (SNAP) -$10.21M -$8.28M -$7.89M -$6.94M
Wework Inc (WE) -$16.17M -$14.14M -$9.70M -$6.57M
Chesapeake Energy (CHK)  $3.39M $0.82M -$23.95M -$14.22M

The table provides a snapshot of the retained earnings of select companies over a four-year period, highlighting the magnitude of negative retained earnings in each fiscal year.

  • Uber Technologies Inc (UBER)

    Uber reported retained losses of -$32.76 million as of December 30, 2022. This figure has worsened over the years, indicating a significant loss accumulation for the company.

  • Tesla Inc (TSLA)

    Tesla experienced a turnaround in its retained earnings, with positive figures of $12.88 million as of December 30, 2022. However, the company had negative retained profits in the previous years, reflecting the challenges it faced in earlier periods.

  • Snap Inc (SNAP)

    Snap’s retained earnings have consistently been in the negative territory, with -$10.21 million as of December 30, 2022. The company has been grappling with accumulated losses, which impact its overall financial standing.

  • Wework Inc (WE)

    Wework also shows retained earnings negative, with a figure of -$16.17 million as of December 30, 2022. The company has struggled to generate sufficient profits to offset its losses.

  • Chesapeake Energy (CHK)

    Chesapeake Energy experienced a shift from accumulated deficit to positive figures, reporting $3.39 million as of December 30, 2022. However, the company faced significant losses in the preceding years.

    These case studies highlight the varying levels of deficit in accumulated income among these companies, indicating challenges in profitability and financial performance.


Negative retained earnings can be a concerning issue for any company, as it represents accumulated losses that can have significant implications on the business’s financial health.

While there may be various reasons for a company to have accumulated deficits, it is essential to understand the impact and take necessary steps to rectify the situation.

As we have discussed, negative retained profits can lead to reduced borrowing capacity and diminished investor confidence. This, in turn, can affect a company’s ability to grow and expand in the future.

However, by implementing sound financial strategies, companies can recover from retained losses and rebuild their financial position.

It’s also important to note that changes in retained earnings can offer valuable insights for investors. By monitoring retained earnings over time, investors can evaluate a company’s performance and financial position.

Debit retained earnings, in particular, can be a crucial metric for evaluating a company’s financial health, as it represents the amount of money that a company has borrowed to finance its operations.


What Might Cause A Company’s Retained Earnings To Be Negative?

A company’s retained earnings can become negative if it has experienced consecutive losses or if it has paid out more dividends than the number of profits generated in previous periods.

Other factors that can contribute to negative retained earnings include write-offs of failed investments, restructuring costs, and changes in accounting practices.

A negative retained earnings balance indicates that the company has accumulated losses over time, which may impact its ability to access credit or raise capital.

What Causes Retained Earnings To Decrease?

Retained earnings can decrease due to various factors such as payment of dividends, share buybacks, losses incurred in the current period, and adjustments to accounting policies.

When a company pays dividends to its shareholders, the retained earnings balance decreases. Share buybacks, which involve repurchasing shares from the market, can also lead to a decrease in retained earnings.

Additionally, if a company experiences losses in a particular period, the retained earnings balance will be reduced, as it reflects the cumulative profits and losses over time.

Finally, changes in accounting policies, such as write-offs of assets or changes in revenue recognition, can also affect the retained earnings balance.

Is It Bad If A Company Has Negative Retained Earnings?

Having negative retained earnings is not necessarily a bad thing for a company in the short term. It could be due to strategic investments or expansion efforts that are expected to generate future profits.

However, sustained negative retained earnings can indicate underlying financial issues, such as a lack of profitability or liquidity problems. Negative retained earnings can also limit a company’s ability to access credit or raise capital.

Ultimately, the impact of negative retained earnings depends on the specific circumstances and the company’s overall financial health.

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