Are stock buybacks overhyped?

Share repurchases aren’t the magic potions some investors and corporate managements think, according to an analysis of Standard & Poor’s 500 companies in the June 2013 Institutional Investor. Stock buybacks can create value, but they can also destroy value – and the actual results suggest some humility in talking up the advantages.

Cash stackSome institutional investors love financial wizardry. Share repurchases automatically increase EPS by reducing shares outstanding – and send a message of confidence in a company’s stock. So financial engineering fans press the idea on a CEO or CFO more than any business strategy, such as investing corporate cash in growth or new product creation.

And some companies love share repurchases. Now Institutional Investor, working with Fortuna Advisors, has begun publishing a quarterly scorecard of how effective stock buybacks actually are, at least in the large cap world. Based on S&P 500 companies that repurchase more than $1 billion in stock or at least 4% of their market cap, the magazine reports rolling two-year ROI for buyback programs.

You can get the overview in “Corporate Share Repurchases Often Disappoint Investors” or dive into raw data in a table detailing ROI for S&P 500 companies with big repurchase programs. (A majority – 268 of the 488 index members that were public for the whole two-year period – bought back at least $1 billion or 4% of their market value.)

The II-Fortuna analysis calculates ROI as an internal rate of return to evaluate investment performance of cash spent on buybacks over two years, including share value increases/decreases and savings on dividends avoided.

Results suggest investor relations people – and CEOs – may want to be more modest in discussing share repurchase plans. The accounting effects of buybacks are assured, but benefits to shareholder value aren’t:

Returning cash to shareholders is supposed to benefit everybody – at least, that’s how the theory goes. Investors who want cash get plenty; shareholders who prefer to stay the course see higher earnings and cash flow per share …

The fanfare that typically accompanies buyback announcements never hints that poor execution can torpedo more value than accounting-based bumps in earnings or cash flow can produce on their own.

Apple is the magazine’s poster child for the disparity between  theory and reality. The magazine dings Apple CEO Tim Cook for his $60 billion repurchase program, the biggest authorization in history, which he enthusiastically called “an attractive use of our capital”:

Buyback ROI reveals a less ebullient story at Apple than Cook described. The company’s -56.7 percent return on buybacks trails those of all S&P 500 companies that compete in the rankings. Every dollar spent by Apple on share buybacks during the two-year period was worth less than 44 cents. …

Trouble is, companies often buy back shares when the price is high – and as we know, stocks go up and down. Timing is everything, at least for returns over a typical investment horizon of two years. Often the timing is wrong:

“During the downturn in 2008 and 2009, even companies with good cash balances didn’t buy back stock, and now they are buying back shares,” says Adam Parker, Morgan Stanley’s top U.S. equity strategist. “A lot of companies have not done a particularly good job of buying low.”

If you’re interested in more analysis, Fortuna Advisors CEO Gregory Milano offers companies some direct advice on how to approach share repurchases in “What’s Your Return on Buybacks?”

I’d love to hear your feedback on buybacks.

© 2013 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

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