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

A second significant challenge to the buyback game? Companies that have spent more on stock buybacks are underperforming relative to those that have spent less on buybacks. At some point, buyback activity may be reined in by executives who become cognizant of the underachievement, particularly if there are cash flow concerns. It follows that the stock market’s only buyer would require another major group to step up its participation, or the selling pressure would overwhelm current prices.

CNB C Buyback Chart

There is a third, more ominous complication associated with debt-funded buyback activity. Specifically, what would happen if credit conditions tightened? Even a modest tightening similar to what transpired in the first few months of 2016 would lead to trouble for corporations looking to finance and acquire shares. Whether spreads between treasury bonds and corporate bonds (e.g., investment grade, high yield, etc.) widen, or whether global growth concerns slam the world’s financial institutions again, it is not far-fetched to imagine easy money access becoming a little less easy.

One way that a few folks are evaluating the current climate for stocks as well as the liquidity of corporations is by addressing the “Buyback to Free Cash Flow Ratio.” The higher the ratio, the more troublesome the environment. Unfortunately, at the current moment, the ratio is dangerously high – near the highest levels since the Great Recession ended (58.3%). And since corporations haven’t really slowed their insatiable appetite for buybacks just yet, the rising ratio represents aggregate free cash flow (S&P 500) dropping 9.5% on year-over-year basis. Translation? Stocks could fizzle out from their effervescent levels.


Total debt levels rising, net income declining, free cash flow falling, CEO realization of stock underperformance, higher borrowing costs/credit access issues. Any combination of these items is likely to inhibit the buyback support to overvalued S&P 500 equity prices.

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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 5 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.