HH The Stock Buyback Conundrum: Will Companies Keep It Up Much Longer?

Some facts are more interesting than others. For example, Liz Ann Sonders, chief investment strategist and perma-bull at Charles Schwab, recently acknowledged that “…there has not been a dollar added to the U.S. stock market since the end of the financial crisis by retail investors and pension funds.”

Let the reality sink in for a moment. “Mom-n-pop” investors as well as pension funds have not added to their U.S. equity positions during the seven-year-plus bull market. That includes the last three months in which major bank clients (e.g., hedge funds, private clients, institutional investors, etc.) have been net sellers.

Since every buyer has a seller (and vice versa), what group or groups had enough of a buying presence to push the S&P 500 14.2% off of the February closing lows? Corporations.

SP-500-Buybacks-Versus-Stock-Index

The notion that corporate share buybacks have been influential in propping up stocks is nothing new. On the flip side, the extent of the influence may be much greater than previously realized. Standard & Poor’s 500 Index constituents acquired roughly $182 billion of stock in the first quarter of 2016 alone. Even today, with real yields ticking up from 0.0% to 0.4%, companies may not wish to pass up the perceived opportunity to fund share acquisitions through ultra-cheap debt issuance.

Free Money

Unfortunately, debt-funded buybacks present a number of challenges. First of all, total debt levels for U.S. companies have doubled since the Great Recession. While many analysts focus solely on the current ability for companies to service their debt obligations, the capacity for companies to do so changes when borrowing costs increase, free cash flow sinks and/or net income declines.

Consider free cash flow after dividends. This refers to the cash flow from operating activities excluding fixed capital expenditures and dividends paid. In Q4 of 2015, companies spent 101.7% of free cash flow after dividends. 101.7%! Not only was that a sizable year-over-year jump from Q4 2014 when the ratio chimed in near 81%, but it demonstrates that S&P 500 corporations (in aggregate) are now spending every free dollar on the support of stock prices. If they continue to spend every dime to support stock prices, rather than growing respective businesses via capital expenditures, the inevitable stagnation would hinder long-term profit prospects.

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Disclosure: ETF Expert is a web log (”blog”) that makes the world of ETFs easier to understand. Gary Gordon, MS, CFP is the president of Pacific Park Financial, Inc., a Registered ...

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Moon Kil Woong 4 years ago Contributor's comment

Thanks for the insightful article. Sadly many poorly run companies are buying back shares to cover their loss in marketshare, lack of vision, and to please bankers promoting their stocks by borrowing from them to fund unsustainable policies. Thus, many companies engaging in high stock buybacks should be sold for that reason, not acquired, especially if their cash flow looks horrific due to this.

As many will point out, cash flow is king in businesses. Stock buybacks often make a bad situation worse as the company looses its assets to deal with business doing it and gets nothing but more shares of a bad company for it.