An Old School Financial Analyst Rant…

A company can basically do three things with its net after tax income. It can pay dividends. It can reinvest back in the business through plant and equipment spending, research and development expenditures, and the acquisition of other companies. Lastly, it can buy back its shares. Pretty simple.

Spoiler alert, we are not big fans of buybacks. We think that companies should be in the business of growing sales, increasing earnings, reinvesting back in the business and paying dividends. Some companies like Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway pay no dividend, arguing that they can invest their net income more profitably than shareholders. This is fine; Berkshire has proven it can do it. Buffett also will not buy back shares unless the price falls below a level he sees as ultra cheap relative to assets. It rarely has.

Proponents of regular buybacks argue that it benefits shareholders, increases the stock price and drives up earnings per share (by reducing the share count). Proponents of buybacks also note that dividends are tax inefficient. A company pays taxes on its earnings before paying dividends and then investors pay taxes on the dividends received. But taxes on dividends are not what they used to be. For instance married filers who earn less than $78,000 pay no income tax on qualified dividends (most dividends are qualified). Married filers who earn up to $478,000 pay 15% and the super rich pay only 20%.

The chart at the bottom shows the significant increase in buybacks over the past ten years. Anne wrote last month about companies who buy other companies. They more often than not pay too much or buy companies at the wrong time. The same criticism might be leveled at buybacks. Note that when stocks were cheapest (2009), there were few buybacks. I realize that in 2008 companies had very little earnings and limited excess cash but still the idea is you buy back at the low and you keep your powder dry at the high.

Today, with stock prices much higher than 2008, buybacks are soaring. It’s estimated that companies bought back $770 billion of stock in 2018, and this year Goldman Sachs estimates the number will be $940 billion. This is greater than the subprime mortgage market in 2007. I hope this is not our Bubble du jour? Stephanie Pomboy of the economic research firm MacroMavens argued recently in Barron’s that half of the recovery in the S&P 500 the past 10 years has been fueled by buybacks. If buybacks get cut back dramatically due to a weakening economy…..well I guess we will have to wait and see what effect this has.

One more thing on buybacks. Companies issue a lot of new shares as incentives and bonuses to employees. This is good in that you want a motivated and well paid staff. But many companies go overboard showering senior management with excessive amounts of new shares. Buybacks work to mask this by offsetting the newly issued shares. Companies have to report share bonuses but the numbers are buried deep in the footnotes. Investors beware.

So our advice to companies is – keep things simple, spend liberally to grow your business and pay dividends. Go easy on the buybacks.

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What To Do With All That Cash...

The Tax Reform Act passed last December was good news for Corporate America. Tax rates on profits earned at home dropped from 35% to 21% and levies on lower taxed foreign earnings were significantly reduced. But the biggest near-term positive impact may come from the provision that reduced taxes on cash balances held abroad to a low 15.5% rate. This “repatriation” tax could be imposed on as much as $2 trillion in accumulated overseas earnings.

Architects of the latest tax reforms had at least two objectives in mind when crafting policy. First, they wanted to bring U.S. corporate tax rates more in line with those of our international competitors. Second, they hoped to give the economy a boost by stimulating productivity enhancing investments. Lowering the cost of bringing funds back home, it was hoped, would do just that.

Unfortunately, as of today it remains unclear how much cash will end up back on our shores and how the money that does return will be spent. In a recent survey of S&P 500 executives, BofA Merrill Lynch found that only 35% of total repatriated cash is likely to be spent on capital spending. Almost 75% is expected to be returned to shareholders in the form of dividends and share buybacks (see chart below.) Over the past month alone, American companies have announced more than $178 billion in share buybacks, the largest amount ever in a single quarter.

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This current buyback binge is drawing criticism from many quarters. One complaint is that buybacks are nothing more than a ploy by management to boost compensation. Buying back shares reduces the share count which can, in turn, boost earnings per share. While compensation structures can impart bias, benefit consulting firm Equilar reports that only one-third of corporate boards use earnings per share to determine executive pay. Further, many companies such as Apple, repurchase shares simply as a way to offset the dilutive impact that results from employees exercising stock options.

Critics also claim that buybacks have historically drawn funds away from other productivity enhancing investments. The research supporting this claim, however, is not compelling. Harvard professors Jesse Fried and CV Wang recently examined the amount of funds returned to shareholders in the form of buybacks and dividends over the 2007-2016 period. After adjusting for additional share issuance and taking into consideration R&D spending, they found that shareholder payouts amounted to just 33% of adjusted net income.

The rush to buy back shares today, however, should be viewed critically for two other reasons. First, management should repurchase shares when they have available cash and when they perceive them to be undervalued. Unfortunately, the historical record here is not great. As the chart below shows, the volume of share buybacks tends to peak at market highs and decline precipitously when share prices fall.

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Second, over the last decade companies have loaded up on low cost debt – in many cases borrowing funds for the sole purpose of repurchasing shares. This approach makes sense as along as conditions remain as they are today. But if rates rise or the economy softens, two very possible outcomes, elevated debt levels could swiftly become a problem. Deleveraging in a soft economy when cash flows weaken or in a rising rate environment will not be an easy task.