A random sampling of the stupid.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

No, stock buybacks are not a scam

I normally agree with the angry rants posted at lewrockwell.com, so I was surprised at the most recent article entitled Stock Buybacks are a Scam, by Eric Englund. The gist of his argument is summarized thusly: a bunch of large financial institutions underwent major buybacks over the past 6 years*, and now all of their stocks are tanking. Therefore, stock buybacks are bad for shareholders. Stated that way, it sounds stupid, to anyone who remembers that correlation does not necessarily equal causation.

He makes other points, such as that if buybacks are so good for companies, shouldn't management execute them when times are so tough? But of course that would be stupid, because during tough times a company should watch it's balance sheet and hold on to cash for dear life. Therefore, stock buybacks are always evil. This type of paranoid ranting bothers me, because it distracts from more deserving paranoid rants.

When a company earns money, it has 2 basic choices: re-invest to grow the company, or distribute the earnings to shareholders (or maybe employees). In order to distribute the earnings, the company can just pay the money out in cash as a dividend, or repurchase shares to drive up the price and value of remaining outstanding shares. Prior to the Bush tax cuts, the latter choice was clearly optimal because dividends were taxed at a much higher rate than capital gains; nowadays they're usually taxed at the same rate, so the choice is less clear.

The basic idea of a stock buyback is that a company believes its shares are undervalued, and thus shareholder value can be increased by buying shares. The understand this, lets say that the shares were exactly correctly priced at 1 share = present value future earnings. Buying 1 share at $100/share doesn't gain or lose the company anything, it pays $100 for $100 of future earnings. If the shares were undervalued, say at $90, then the company pays $90 for $100 of earnings. Of course, the company is only likely to be undervalued during "tough times", so management needs to make sure they have enough working capital (as always), but any surplus should be invested as profitably as possible.

Seems like a good idea to me. The act of the buyback will drive up the share price, benefiting current shareholders. Englunds argument about weakening the balance sheet is true of any business activity which requires capital, also known as any business activity. Still, buybacks are only a good idea if shares are undervalued, and the capital used could not be reinvested more profitably somewhere else.

Englund closes with a story told by Buffett (how could anybody disagree with Buffett?), about a CEO who uses share buybacks to drive up the share price and hide the declining earnings of the company. This is a valid concern, but Buffett's point relates to executive compensation, and gave an example of a CEO making a killing even though the company's earnings declined, because the CEO drove up the share price through buybacks.

This is an example of how stock buybacks can be used to hide declining performance. Most investors only care about a companys' share price. As long as it goes up, they're happy. A company which spends all of its' earnings on buybacks to drive up the price is not growing, and what investors are losing is opportunity. This is a real cost, and an investor should not be happy about a CEO sacrificing opportunities for long-term growth to create short-term stock gains.

A buyback is intended to transfer earnings from shareholders, and that's exactly what it does. Dividends do the same thing, but I'd be surprised if anybody would call massive dividends a scam. Usually the opposite is claimed, since payout ratios have been decreasing over time. They're ways to return earnings to shareholders. Obviously, management needs to strike a balance between retaining earnings for growth and paying out earnings to shareholders.

Yes, buybacks can be used to cover up declining earnings, and as such, they can be used to mislead shareholders. That doesn't make them bad in general, just like hammers aren't inherently evil because you can use them to kill people. They're a tool, simple as that.

Error rating: 3. The entire argument is based on 7 companies which are going through hell right now, assuming correlation equals causation, generalizing from 7 companies all in a single industry to the entire stock market, and mis-interpreting an example from Buffett. On second thought, all that together adds up to a 4.


* He gives figures for J.P. Morgan, Citigroup, Lehman, Merill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Wachovia, and Washington Mutual

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