What is Stockholders' Equity?

Stockholders' equity, also referred to as shareholders' equity, is the remaining amount of assets available to shareholders after all liabilities have been paid. It is calculated either as a firm's total assets less its total liabilities or alternatively as the sum of share capital and retained earnings less treasury shares. Stockholders' equity might include common stock, paid-in capital, retained earnings and treasury stock.

Conceptually, stockholders' equity is useful as a means of judging the funds retained within a business. If this figure is negative, it may indicate an oncoming bankruptcy for that business, particularly if there exists a large debt liability as well.

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What Is Stockholders' Equity?

Understanding Stockholders' Equity

Stockholders' equity is often referred to as the book value of the company and it comes from two main sources. The first source is the money originally and subsequently invested in the company through share offerings. The second source consists of the retained earnings the company accumulates over time through its operations. In most cases, especially when dealing with companies that have been in business for many years, retained earnings is the largest component.

Key Takeaways

  • Stockholders' equity refers to the assets remaining in a business once all liabilities have been settled.
  • This figure is calculated by subtracting total liabilities from total assets; alternatively, it can be calculated by taking the sum of share capital and retained earnings, less treasury stock.
  • A negative stockholders' equity may indicate an impending bankruptcy.

Paid-In Capital and Stockholders' Equity

Companies fund their capital purchases with equity and borrowed capital. The equity capital/stockholders' equity can also be viewed as a company's net assets (total assets minus total liabilities). Investors contribute their share of (paid-in) capital as stockholders, which is the basic source of total stockholders' equity. The amount of paid-in capital from an investor is a factor in determining his/her ownership percentage.

Retained Earnings Role in Creating Greater Stockholder's Equity

Retained earnings are a company's net income from operations and other business activities retained by the company as additional equity capital. Retained earnings are thus a part of stockholders' equity. They represent returns on total stockholders' equity reinvested back into the company. Retained earnings accumulate and grow larger over time. At some point, accumulated retained earnings may exceed the amount of contributed equity capital and can eventually grow to be the main source of stockholders' equity.

Treasury Shares' Impact on Stockholders' Equity

Companies may return a portion of stockholders' equity back to stockholders when unable to adequately allocate equity capital in ways that produce desired profits. This reverse capital exchange between a company and its stockholders is known as share buybacks. Shares bought back by companies become treasury shares, and their dollar value is noted in the treasury stock contra account. Treasury shares continue to count as issued shares, but they are not considered to be outstanding and are thus not included in dividends or the calculation of earnings per share (EPS). Treasury shares can always be reissued back to stockholders for purchase when companies need to raise more capital. If a company doesn't wish to hang on to the shares for future financing, it can choose to retire the shares.