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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Value Stocks May be Poised to Outperform

Since Parsec’s founding in 1980, we’ve touted the benefits of long-only equity investing.  This includes owning individual stocks, mutual funds, and exchange traded funds (ETFs).  We’ve also maintained the same investment style over the last thirty-seven years.  Regarding funds, Parsec’s investment policy committee (IPC) focuses on low fees, higher-quality holdings, and managers with long track records of outperformance.  When researching individual stocks, we take a value approach, favoring higher-quality companies that trade at a discount to history or peers.

While history shows that value stocks have outperformed growth stocks over most market periods, in recent years growth stocks have delivered higher returns.  In this email we’ll discuss what we mean by value versus growth investing and why we believe value stocks are poised to outperform going forward.

Different stock investors define “value investing” differently.  However, most agree on a few basic principles.  In general, value investors prefer stocks that trade at discounts to their intrinsic values.  Often this happens when a stock’s valuation falls below its long-term historical average or that of its peers.  Another tenet of value investing is margin of safety.  This means selecting stocks that can deliver healthy total returns even if current growth assumptions fall short of expectations.  While we consider ourselves value investors, we will add select growth stocks to the Parsec buy list when expectations look reasonable and a company has a competitive advantage.  In other words, when we think a stock has a reasonable margin of safety.

In addition to a value-based stock selection approach, Parsec’s investment philosophy also has a quality bias.  This means we prefer companies with strong cash flows, consistent earnings growth, a long history of dividends, and above average returns on invested capital.  We also favor companies with strong balance sheets that can withstand different market environments and even gain market share during difficult economic periods.

Looking back over the market’s history, value stocks have outperformed growth stocks by an average of 4.4% annually from 1926 to 2016 (Bank of America/Merrill Lynch).  More recently from 1990 to 2015, value stocks outperformed growth stocks by just 0.43% annually.  The spread has since reversed and in the last ten years value stocks have lagged growth stocks by 3% annually through the second quarter of 2017*.

The shift in leadership from value to growth stocks coincided with the start and continuation of the Federal Reserve’s massive monetary accommodation programs known collectively as quantitative easing (QE I, II, and III).  Those programs put additional downward pressure on interest rates.  In the face of low or no yields and the slowest economic expansion after a deep recession in over 120 years, investors demonstrated a preference for growth stocks over value stocks.  They were willing to pay up for companies delivering higher growth in a world where growth had become scarce.  Throughout the last ten years value stocks have occasionally outperformed, but usually in tandem with a steepening Treasury yield curve and thus improving growth expectations.

Because asset prices and interest rates are inversely correlated, very low interest rates over the last decade have led to above-average asset valuation levels.  This has been even more pronounced among growth stocks as investors have been willing to pay a premium to own them in a slow growth environment.  As a result, typically higher-priced growth stocks are even more expensive today.

Sticking to our value- and quality-biased investment approach has admittedly been a headwind in recent years.  However, we believe higher-quality stocks trading at a discount are poised to outperform.  Growth stocks currently trading at premium valuation levels will have further to fall in the event of a market downturn.  As well, low interest rates have prompted corporations to take out record debt levels.  As rates begin to rise, higher-quality companies or those with strong balance sheets and robust cash flows will be better able to service their debt levels, even during an economic downturn.  While maintaining our investment approach through the current environment has been challenging, we feel confident that investing in higher-quality companies trading at discounted valuations will reward clients over the long-term.

*References the Russell 3000 Growth Index and the Russell 3000 Value Index

The Parsec Team

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