Stock Buybacks Go Bust

The perfect storm of zero percent interest rates that existed concurrently with a debt-disabled economy lured executives at major corporations into a decade-long stock buyback program. The Fed pumped money into the economy thru its various Quantitative Easing programs to force interest rates near zero percent, with the expectation corporations would borrow money at the lowest rates in history and then invest in their businesses in the form of Property Plant and Equipment (capital goods). This in turn would expand productivity and help foster a low-inflation and strong growth environment.

But many corporate executives found a much more enticing path to take in the form of EPS manipulation. That is, they boosted both their companies' share price and, consequently, their own compensation, by simply buying back shares of their own stock.

For the most part, companies have used debt to finance these earnings-boosting share purchases. Stock buybacks have been at a record pace this year. 

This is a short-term positive for shareholders because it bids up the stock price in the market; just as it also reduces the shares outstanding. This process boosts the EPS calculation and increases cash flows as fewer dividends are paid to outside shareholders. As an added bonus, it also provides for a nice tax write-off.

Wall Street is easily fooled into thinking valuations are in line using the traditional PE ratio calculation. But this metric becomes hugely distorted by share repurchases that boost that EPS number. Other metrics that are not as easily manipulated, such as the price-to-sales ratio and the total market cap-to-GDP ratio, have been screaming the overvaluation of this market in record capacity.

Traditionally speaking, a company decides to buy back shares when they believe their stock is undervalued. But from 2008-2010--a time when stocks were trading at fire-sale prices--companies bought back very few shares. However, it was only after Wall Street became confident that the Fed’s printing presses were going to stay on for years that share purchases went into overdrive—even though the underlying economic growth was anemic.

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Michael Pento is the President and Founder of Pento Portfolio Strategies, produces the weekly podcast called, more

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