Why Stock Buybacks are Significant and What to Make of Recent Trends

Company stock buybacks recently surpassed 2007’s prior record of $172 billion. As of the first quarter 2018, buybacks from the S&P 500 Index constituents reached $178 billion, up about 34% year-over-year. This compares with $24 billion in stock buybacks at the market bottom in 2009.

As the name implies, stock buybacks (also known as share repurchase programs) happen when companies buy back their own shares. A firm uses its cash position to repurchase company stock either in the open market or directly from select shareholders. These programs reduce the number of shares outstanding for the company in question and thus increase the ownership stakes of its remaining shareholders. The end result is more profits or earnings per share (EPS) per shareholder.

In general, stock buyback programs are viewed favorably by Wall Street. These programs help neutralize shareholder dilution that comes from excessive stock option issuance. Many management teams go further and announce buyback programs that more than offsets dilution from stock options.  In these cases, existing shareholders see their ownership stakes grow, and with it, their portion of earnings per share.

Another positive attribute of share buybacks is their affect on key company financial metrics such as earnings per share (EPS), return on equity (ROE), and earnings growth rates. These ratios are used by professional investors to determine the health of a company and are usually part of their investment decision process. Because share buybacks often boost a company’s financial profile, these programs can lead to more interest among institutional investors and thus increased demand for the stock. Higher demand from large investors typically translates into a higher stock price. With higher ownership stakes and larger earnings per share accruing to remaining investors, stock buybacks offer shareholders a compelling, two-fold benefit.

Investor perception also plays a significant role in share buybacks. Many argue that because a company’s management team has inside information regarding a firm’s growth prospects, a share buyback announcement is a signal that a stock may be undervalued – otherwise management would choose to spend the company’s cash on more profitable investments. This positive signal alone can cause a stock’s price to rise.

There is a downside to share buybacks, however. In recent years, record-low interest rates have prompted many companies to issue large amounts of debt to fund their share buyback programs. While this has had the effect of boosting near-term earnings growth and increasing existing shareholders’ ownership stakes, it could come at the cost of longer-term returns. Although interest rates remain low, as yields increase- debt servicing costs are likely to rise. These higher debt burdens – taken on to buyback company shares – could crimp a company’s ability to invest in value-enhancing initiatives such as technology investments or new manufacturing facilities, and ultimately reduce long-term earnings and cash flow growth.

Likewise, stock buybacks are a more flexible alternative than issuing a dividend. Many contend that management teams prefer share repurchase programs to dividend payments because they can easily suspend buyback activity with limited negative ramifications. In contrast, dividend cuts are viewed quite unfavorably by investors and are likely to significantly pressure a stock price. When a company issues a new dividend it suggests confidence in the firm’s market position, growth prospects, and cash flows. Thus, when dividends are cut or eliminated it signals deteriorating company fundamentals ahead.

Given the short-term benefits and minimal near-term risks associated with share buybacks, more companies are engaging in these programs than ever. Similar to individual investments, repurchase programs are most beneficial when a management team buys its firm’s stock at low levels and watches it appreciate in value over time. Although the investing principle of buy low and sell high is well understood, many corporate directors fail to follow this basic rule of thumb. The historical record indicates that seasoned company management teams are just as likely to buy at peak valuation levels and refrain from share buyback programs at market bottoms.

Although company management teams have a poor track record when it comes to timing share buyback programs, many are excellent stewards of their firm’s growth prospects and market positions. This suggests that as individual investors we would do best to focus on high-quality investments with long-term track records of delivering value and leave the market timing to speculators.

Carrie Tallman, CFP®, CFA™
Guest Contributor 
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Stocks on Sale

U.S. stocks have already seen two pullbacks greater than 5% so far in 2018, as measured by the S&P 500 Index. That compares to only one pullback over 5% in the last 2 years. To say that recent stock swings have been jarring would be an understatement. While sharp declines in prices are unpleasant, equity volatility has been unusually low since the Financial Crisis ended in 2009. Unprecedented support from the Federal Reserve coupled with steady economic growth has pushed stocks steadily higher for 9 years.

As a result, investors have gotten used to smooth and steady stock market gains. But our experience since 2009, in which the S&P 500 Index declined 5% or more only 10 times, is not the norm. Going back to 1945, on average the S&P 500 Index has experienced declines of 5% or more every six months – almost double the frequency of pullbacks we’ve had since the Financial Crisis. While the recent past has been a pleasant ride, market volatility is likely to increase going forward, which may not be a bad thing.

A friend of mine and savvy stock investor once told me that she loved market pullbacks. “It’s like a sale,” she said, “…an opportunity to buy quality products at discounted prices!” Her analogy stuck with me over the years and today I view market pullbacks as opportunities rather than a reason to panic.  Granted, training my brain to think this way took some time and effort. But as an investor, it is an endeavor worth pursuing.

Consulting firm, Dalbar, provides an excellent reason to re-frame your thinking regarding market pullbacks. According to their research, while the S&P 500 Index has delivered an annualized trailing 10-year return of 6.95% through 2016, the average investor return was just 3.64%! Even more striking, the average investor earned a 4% annualized return over the trailing 30-year period compared with the S&P 500 Index’s 10% annualized return for the same period!

As the data clearly indicates and as Dalbar notes, “Investment returns are more dependent on investor behavior than fund performance.” These well-below market returns happen because investors tend to sell their stocks (and bonds) as prices are falling or bottoming. Instead of buying low and selling high – the tried and true way to grow wealth – a lack of investment discipline causes many retail investors to do just the opposite. To compound matters, after selling their stocks and funds during market downturns, many investors – scared from the market turbulence – typically sit on the sidelines as markets recover and therefore never recoup their portfolio losses.

While not all market declines present perfect buying opportunities, falling asset prices do present a chance to add to positions at lower prices. Stocks (and bonds) are on sale! Sometimes downturns are longer and more severe than we would like or expect. However, timing the market is a losing game. Research suggests that taking a long-term approach to investing, regularly rebalancing your portfolio to an appropriate target allocation, and staying invested through market downturns significantly increases the odds that you reach your long-term financial goals.

Weathering market turbulence is not for the faint of heart – which is why a financial advisor can be such a valuable asset. During turbulent market environments your advisor will guide you through market downturns, rebalance your portfolio to take advantage of lower prices, and ultimately remind you why you’re invested. On that note, we’re grateful you’re our client!

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