Stock buybacks have been in the news lately, as their growing size has lead to criticism, especially from politicians who believe they contribute to economic inequality. But the simplest critique of the practice of buybacks can be made on economic grounds, in terms of value created or destroyed.
If you ask a seasoned investor to boil success down to one sentence, they’ll probably say “buy low and sell high.” Ask them to simplify even more, and they’ll say “buy value” – which usually correlates with buying something when its cheap. If we flip these maxims around then the worst kind of investing is to buy high. Expensive things do occasionally become more expensive – but with greater risk.
I have always been weary of buybacks, going all the way back to the last buyback boom before the financial crisis. My concern then was that by purchasing shares management was making a declaration, that this is a good time to buy our stock, as opposed to the past or the future. But if management knows that then it knows how to time the market, and if management knows how to time the market, then it’s better off running a hedge fund. Since management is instead running a company, it should focus on what it was hired to do and leave the stock market alone.
Taking the practice to a more extreme measure, many large companies today are tapping the debt markets, borrowing money at record low rates and using the proceeds for buybacks. The practice is popular among blue chip companies like Apple and Microsoft, who despite their cash heavy balance sheets prefer the tax efficiency of financing buybacks with debt. The old me would find such a practice even more unwise, as it entails timing two markets at once, a feat even a seasoned hedge fund manager would have trouble pulling off. But the old me didn’t understand how buybacks really work.
To call an action market timing is to imply participants care about price. They are buying today because today offers a good price whereas tomorrow might not. But executives doing buybacks don’t care about price. We know this because new buybacks are not announced with any limitations on share price. We are going to buy back $2 Billion worth of shares in the next quarter. What happens if share prices rises drastically beforehand? Management doesn’t care.
We also know this because currently, with the stock market at all time highs, new buyback announcements have gone parabolic to amounts never seen before. The current level of buying recently surpassed that of 2007, at the previous peak of the market. But the buying has not been continuous, as companies took an extended break during the financial crisis while stock prices fell drastically. If you chart buybacks versus the overall stock market in the past 10 years you’ll find a neat correlation.
For over a decade now corporate management has been doing the exact opposite of what constitutes good investing. If you include the fact that some of the companies buying back shares before the crisis were selling shares to raise capital during the crisis, and are now buyers again, then management has been buying high to sell low to buy high again.
If you acted similarly in any other walk of life you would be the subject of ridicule and featured in finance books on what not to do. Imagine walking into a dealership and saying “I am going to buy this car, regardless of what price you quote me.” Then imagine selling that car at half the price, only to eventually buy it back at a premium.
On Wall Street however such behavior is now the norm. Take the example of Royal Dutch Shell, which recently announced the acquisition of BG Group. The deal is mostly financed by Shell issuing new shares. It’s said to be accretive next year, as in increasing the company’s earnings and presumably its stock value. It also comes with a plan by Shell to buy back millions of its own shares in 2 years. So the company has promised to sell something today, drive up its value tomorrow and then buy it back next week.
All of this would be laughable if not for the consequences. The net amount of buybacks executed in recent years has now surpassed $2 trillion. That’s $2 trillion in capital spent on an activity that at best creates no value and historically has destroyed it. As our business leaders continue to speculate on why the current recovery refuses to kick into high gear, they should look at wasteful buybacks as one possible impediment.