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Entrepreneurs and Profits, Return on Equity

high profits, particular market, typewriters, government bonds, corporate profits

What stockholders risk—the amount they stand to lose if a business incurs losses and shuts down—is the money they have invested in the business, their equity. These are the funds stockholders provide for the firm whenever it offers a new issue of stock, or when the firm keeps some of the profits it earns to use in the business as retained earnings, rather than paying those profits out to stockholders as dividends.

Profits as a return on stockholders’ equity for U.S. corporations usually average from 12 to 16 percent, for larger and smaller corporations alike. That is more than people can earn on savings accounts, or on long-term government and corporate bonds. That is not surprising, however, because stockholders usually accept more risk by investing in companies than people do when they put money in savings accounts or buy bonds. The higher average yield for corporate profits is required to make up for the fact that there are likely to be some years when returns are lower, or perhaps even some when a company loses money.

At least part of any firm’s profits are required for it to continue to do business. Business owners could put their funds into savings accounts and earn a guaranteed level of return, or put them in government bonds that carry hardly any risk of default. If a business does not earn a rate of return in a particular market at least as high as a savings account or government bonds, its owners will decide to get out of that market and use the resources elsewhere—unless they expect higher levels of profits in the future.

Over time, high profits in some businesses or industries are a signal to other producers to put more resources into those markets. Low profits, or losses, are a signal to move resources out of a market into something that provides a better return for the level of risk involved. That is a key part of how markets work and respond to changing demand and supply conditions. Markets worked exactly that way in the U.S. economy when people left the blacksmith business to start making automobiles at the beginning of the 20th century. They worked the same way at the end of the century, when many companies stopped making typewriters and started making computers and printers.

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