United Technologies Faces Reality- Will Other Companies Follow Suit Before It’s Too Late

On November 27, 2018, the CFO from United Technologies (UTX) stated that his company will focus on deleveraging and not stock buybacks. This announcement comes as General Electric (GE) is struggling mightily to retain investment grade status and its stock is nearing levels last seen during the depths of the financial crisis. While there is much to attribute to GE’s decline, massive stock buybacks in 2016 and 2017 are largely to blame.

To wit: “The root problem at GE — and why the stock is where it is — is poor capital allocation,” said RBC Capital Markets analyst Deane Dray.

Corporate debt now stands at record levels versus GDP as shown below. While the debt has been used to fund expansion and R&D it has also been used to fund record numbers of share buybacks. The pitfalls of such a strategy are now encroaching upon GE’s ability to survive. We suspect that UTX is the first of many companies to acknowledge this realization.

In February of 2016 we wrote an article on Conoco Phillips (COP). The missive, which is one of six articles we have written criticizing stock buybacks, describes how COP was forced to cut a reliable dividend and capital expenditures as they were strapped for cash. The price of oil at the time was hurting cash-flows. Unfortunately COP, like GE, had previously bought back a significant number of shares which greatly reduced their liquidity status when it was needed most.

While the article is nearly three years old we think it is every bit as important today as it was then. It exemplifies how precarious a company’s ability to survive financial weakness and/or an economic downturn is when capital is squandered in efforts to temporarily boost share prices. This story is likely to become a common theme for the next few years, especially if, as we suspect, economic growth declines and stocks prices fall.


As the Tide Goes Out, Effects of Buybacks are Exposed: The ConocoPhillips Poster Child

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