Stock Buybacks Equal Simple Interest

This article originally appeared on Seeking Alpha

Summary

  • Share buybacks are a poor asset allocation decision.
  • Buybacks reward share sellers not shareholders.
  • Buybacks can’t compete with investment returns.

seeking alpha logoConclusion: From the shareholders’ perspective, most stock buybacks produce little benefit when compared to investing the same funds in the company. They produce a one-time gain in earnings per share (usually small) but contribute nothing to the growth of the net profit or market capitalization. If a company is truly unable to successfully invest the buyback funds in its business, it would be much better for the majority of shareholders to receive a special dividend.

For the twelve months ending September 2016, total share buybacks were close to $600 billion for the S&P 500 companies. This is an enormous amount of money being 66% of the earnings and only slightly less than fixed capital expenditures in the same period. The average buyback program resulted in a “buyback yield” just shy of 3%. This resulted in a very modest annual decline in the shares outstanding which led to an equally modest one-time gain in earnings per share for shareholders, i.e. the vast majority who did not sell their shares.

Because buybacks and dividend yield are considered to be returns to the shareholder, they tend to be lumped together in statements like “total shareholder yield is currently close to 5% comprised of a 2% dividend yield and a 3% buyback yield”.

“Buyback yield” is very misleading. As the source of funds for buybacks is operating cash, it should be first and foremost compared to what they would have achieved if invested.

A 3% “buyback yield” is greatly inferior to investing in the company’s business, acquisitions, or even a special dividend, which would be shared by all shareholders in hard dollars as opposed to soft dollar benefits attributable to fewer shares.

Here is an example of a typical S&P 500 equity. It has a market cap of $15 billion; its shares are at 15x earnings and it buys back 3% of its outstanding shares. This is compared to a hypothetical, but very conservative investment producing 3% in the 1st year, 8% in the 2nd and 10% thereafter. (This analysis is independent of the underlying profitability of the company.)

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