Market Higher in 2007: The Underlying Bid from Stock Buybacks

Since investing is about risk
and reward, one must always ask a key question?

Is there an underlying bid for stocks?

The current answer is a resounding "Yes".  The bid comes from
corporate stock buybacks and private equity.  It does not yet include
individual or foreign investors.  This article focuses on buybacks.


Pretend for a moment that you are an executive at a major corporation that is
enjoying fantastic profit growth.  You are faced with four choices for
your cash:

  1. Reinvest in growth — research, development, or new equipment.
  2. Retain cash, building up the balance sheet.
  3. Increase the dividend.
  4. Buy back stock.

Corporations choose among these alternatives based upon
their own assessment of opportunities and rewarding investors.  Whatever they
do may be second-guessed by Street analysts, most of whom have never met a
payroll, who claim to know the best decision.

Retaining cash may preserve the opportunity for future investment or
acquisition, or it might be a cushion for weaker prospects.

Increasing dividends is a long-term commitment to a higher return of
earnings.  Companies do not take this action lightly, since they hate to
reduce dividends if circumstances change.

Buying back stock provides an alternative payoff for investors.  As a result,
each investor owns a larger share of future earnings.

Investor Preferences

Some investors want dividends, buying stocks with big yields.  Some funds
will only buy stocks that pay dividends.  Other investors seek capital
gains.  For these investors, buying in stock is quite attractive.

Investor preferences are often driven by tax consequences.  Buying back
stock generates capital gains while dividends create income.  The (temporary?) tax reductions on dividends equalize this picture, but some individual preferences still favor capital gains.

In the mid 90’s many valuation models that were based upon dividend yield completely
broke down.  We experimented with these models, but abandoned them in the
face of an obvious trend.  Corporations realized that many investors
preferred capital gains taxation to dividend taxation.  Investors were "voting with their feet."

The Significance

The stock buyback trend has become so important that it now exceeds dividends in the payoff for the investor.  Standard & Poors shows that the tipping point for this trend was in 2004, with the buyback impact now about twice as important as dividends.

For those interested in the prospects for equities — asset allocation, the most important decision and most common mistake — the support of stock buybacks is crucial.  Please note that the existence and significance is a fact, and an important element of the current market rally.  There is no sign that it is stopping.  Strong corporate balance sheets, built through several years of double-digit profit gains, suggest that the trend can endure.

Writing for RealMoney last November, James Altucher put is as follows:

I really disagree with the notion that share buybacks are
bad for a company. I think, in this day and age when private equity firms and S&P
companies have more cash than ever, we’ll be seeing the supply of
shares slowly being taken out of the market over the next few years. You can
argue it’s because they have no better use for the cash. But the real reason is
that profits and margins are at all-time highs because of increases in
productivity and the companies just plain and simply don’t need the cash. So
why not give it back to us?

A prescient comment from Altucher.

The Naysayers

There is a lot of commentary on buybacks from pundits who have been wrong about the stock market for a time period now measured in years.  The complaints include the following points:

  • If companies were really confident, they would pay higher dividends (a micro decision);
  • Some buybacks merely cover option grants (sometimes true, worth watching at a micro level);
  • Many investors would prefer higher dividends (investors have a choice here);
  • Companies are buying stock merely to inflate the stock price (this is what we want, so do we know the true value of the company better than the insiders?);
  • This cannot go on forever (but it can go on for a long time).


The Naysayers sound like debaters who are losing on the macro facts.  They then make company-level assertions that the decisions are unwise or unsound.  In my reading of these comments it is never accompanied by a quantitative analysis.  It is second-guessing of corporate management by people who have no experience running a company.

On a company- specific level, the investor should do homework and decide about the company.  On the question of market valuation, these arguments are hollow.

The "poster-company" for buybacks is IBM.  Some bearish analysts choose to talk about what IBM earnings would be if they had not engaged in buybacks.  Who cares?  That was their choice, and investors should look at the capital structure of the company as it now stands.  Where does that leave the current IBM shareholder?

Take a look at the recent upgrade of IBM by Goldman Sachs to see the real market effect.  Take this case and start multiplying…..


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  • Barry Ritholtz May 23, 2007  

    Nice analysis!
    To me, the key to understanding what could happen next is the profit cycle: Will earnings continue to decelerate, and what will that mean for future buybacks?
    Its also noteworthy that the biggest market winners (outside of materials and energy) are often the major R&D firms: Apple, Google, etc.

  • Barry Ritholtz May 23, 2007  

    Nice analysis!
    To me, the key to understanding what could happen next is the profit cycle: Will earnings continue to decelerate, and what will that mean for future buybacks?
    Its also noteworthy that the biggest market winners (outside of materials and energy) are often the major R&D firms: Apple, Google, etc.

  • me May 23, 2007  

    IBM? $35 Billion on buybacks and dead money on the stock price.

  • The Learning Curve May 24, 2007  

    Cat Fight!

    Mergers and acquisitions, stock buybacks, etc; aren’t these the things we see near market tops? (See Dr. Jeff’s opinion on buybacks…). We’ve seen some incredible market volatility …

  • muckdog May 24, 2007  

    Hey Dr. Jeff! This is a really good entry. Enjoyed it. I wonder, though… Don’t we tend see this kind of thing near “market tops?” Especially in large numbers hitting the Yahoo Finance news wires day after day?
    Companies are flush with cash after a few years into an economic expansion. So we see buybacks, dividend bumps, mergers and acquisitions, etc. Maybe it’s just a coincidence because these kinds of things are indicative of a lengthy economic expansion, and what else are they going to do with the money anyways? (Uh, sponsor a sports arena, Muck…)
    Agree that it does benefit the shareholder to reduce the outstanding shares. And with the low tax rates on dividends set to expire in the years ahead, maybe there will be a rush out of such stocks soon. So increasing the dividend may not be the wisest choice here.
    Have a great Memorial Day weekend.

  • RB May 24, 2007  

    Enjoyed this post too. And as our CFO said “Dividends can only go up”

  • Bond investor June 5, 2007  

    Jeff, your whole bullish case is based on record profit margins for U.S. firms. Profit margins are a mean-reverting time series. Buying stocks when P/Es are above the historical average, while the “E” component is also at the top of the historical range, should be done cautiously.

  • Jeff Miller June 5, 2007  

    Thanks for the excellent comments. Mean reversion in earnings deserves a full post. For now let us just note that one could have been singing that song for several years now. As Muckdog points out, companies have enjoyed a multi-year economic expansion and have kept costs pretty low. As to P/E’s above the “historical average” the reason is that interest rates are below their historical average.
    Thanks again,

  • Bond investor June 6, 2007  

    I think it’s a mistake to hang your equity bullishness on the flawed Fed model, comparing bond yields to stocks. Two reasons:
    1. Whether interest rates are above or below their historical average depends on the timeframe used. If we include decades prior to the Cold War, the averages come down significantly. According to “A History of Interest Rates” by Homer & Sylla (and confirmed with time series on Dr. Robert Shiller’s web site), the average yield for 30-year high-grade bonds since 1871 is 4.7%.
    Today’s 30-year Treasury? 5.08%.
    2. I can’t debunk the Fed model better than Dr. John Hussman: