In my series of data posts, I had always planned to get to dividends and buybacks, the two mechanisms that companies have for returning cash to stockholders, at this point, but an op ed on buybacks by Senators Schumer and Sanders this week, in the New York Times, will undoubtedly make this post seem reactive. The senators argue that the hundreds of billions of dollars that US companies have expended buying back their own shares could have been put to better use, if it had been reinvested back in their businesses or used to increase wages for their employees, and offer a preview of legislation that they plan to introduce to counter the menace. Like the senators, I am concerned about the declining manufacturing base and income inequality in the US, but I believe that their legislative proposal is built on premises that are at war with the data, and has the potential for making things worse, not better.
The Buyback Effect: Benign Phenomenon, Managerial Short-termism or Corporate Malignancy?
'The very mention of buybacks often creates heated debate, because people seem to have very different views on its causes and consequences. All too often, at the end of debate, each side walks away with its views of buybacks intact, completely unpersuaded by the arguments of the other. The reason, I believe is that our views on buybacks are a function of how we think companies act, what the motives of managers are and what it is that investors price into stocks.
a. Buybacks are benign
If companies are run sensibly, the cash that they return to shareholders should reflect a residual cash flow, making the cash return decision, in terms of sequence, the final step in the process.
If companies follow this process, buybacks are just another way of returning cash to stockholders, benign in their impact, because they are not coming at the expense of good investments, at least with good defined as investments that generate more than their hurdle rates. In fact, putting restrictions on how much cash companies can return, can harm not only stockholders (by depriving them of their claim on residual cash flows) but also the economy, because capital will now be tied up in businesses that don't need them, rather than find its way to good ones.
b. Buybacks are short term
The benign view of stock buybacks is built on the presumption that managers make decisions at publicly traded companies with an eye on maximizing value, and since value is a function of expected cash flows over the life of the company, that they have a long term perspective. That view is at odds with evidence that managers often put short term gains ahead of long term value, and if investors are also short term, in pricing stocks, you can get a different picture of what drives buybacks and the consequences:
In effect, managers buy back stock, often with borrowed money, because it reduces share count and increases earnings per shares, and markets reward the company with a higher stock price, because investors don't consider the impact of lost growth and/or the risk of more debt. The argument that buybacks are driven by short term interests is strengthened if management compensation takes the form of equity in the company (options or restricted stock), because managers will be personally rewarded then for buybacks that, while damaging to the company's value (which reflects the long term), push up stock prices in the short term. With this view of the world, buybacks can create damage, especially at companies with good long term projects, run by managers who feel the need to meet short term earnings per share targets.
c. Buybacks are malignant
There is a third view of buybacks, where buybacks are not just motivated by the desire to push up earnings per share and stock prices, but become the central purpose of the firm. With this view, companies try to do whatever they can to generate more cash for buybacks, including crimping on worker wages, turning away good investments and borrowing more, even if that borrowing can put their survival at risk.
This picture captures almost all of the arguments that detractors of buybacks have used, including the ones that Senators Schumer and Sanders present in their article. If buybacks are the drivers of all other corporate actions, instead of being a residual cash flow, the “buyback binge” can be held responsible for a trifecta of America's most pressing economic problems: stagnant wages for workers, the drop in capital expenditures at US companies and the rise in debt on balance sheets. If this buyback shift is being driven by activist shareholders and a subset of "short term" institutional investors, as many argue that it is, you have a populist dream cast of good (workers, small stockholders, consumers) and evil (activists, wealthy shareholders and bankers). If you buy into this description of corporate and investor behavior, and it is not an implausible picture, it stands to reason that restricting or even stopping companies from buying back stock should alleviate and even solve the resulting problems.
Picking a perspective
The reason debates about buybacks very quickly bog down is because proponents not only come in very different perspectives of corporate behavior, but they use anecdotal evidence, where they point to a specific company that behaves in a way that backs their perspective, and say "I told you so". The truth is that the real world is a messy place, with some companies buying back stocks for the right reasons (i.e., because they have no good investments and their stockholders prefer cash returns in this form), some companies buying back stock for short term price gains (to take advantage of markets which are myopic) and some companies focusing on buying back stock at the expense of their employees, lenders and own long term interests.
Moneyball with Buybacks
The question of which side of this debate you will come down on, will depend on which of the perspectives outlined above comes closest to describing how companies and markets actually behave. Since that is an empirical question, not a political, idealogical or a theoretical one, I think it makes sense to look at the numbers on dividends and buybacks, not just in the US, but across the world, and I will do so with a series of data-driven statements.
1. More companies are buying back stock, and more cash is being returned in buybacks
Are US companies returning more and more cash in the form of buybacks? Yes, they are, and it represents a trend that saw its beginnings, not ten years ago, but in the 1980s. In the graph below, I look at the aggregate dividends and buybacks from firms in the S&P 500 since 1986, and also report on the percentage of cash returned that takes the form of buybacks, each year:
Starting at a base in the early 1980s, where buybacks were uncommon and dividends represented almost all cash return, you can see buybacks climb through the 1980s and 1990s, both in dollar value terms and as a percentage of overall cash return. That trend has only accelerated in this century, with the 2008 crisis putting a brief crimp on it. In 2018, more than 60% of the cash returned by S&P 500 companies was in the form of buybacks, amounting to almost $700 billion.
2. Cash Returns are rising as a percent of earnings, and it looks like companies are reinvesting less back into their own businesses
If you look at the graph above, you can see that the rise in buybacks has been accompanied by a stagnation in dividends, with growth rates in dividends substantially falling short of growth in buybacks. This shift has had consequences for two widely used measures of cash return, dividend yield, which looks at dividends as a percent of market capitalization or stock prices and the dividend payout ratio, a measure of the proportion of earnings as dividends. The declining role of dividends, as a form of cash return, has meant that a more relevant measure of cash return has to incorporate stock buybacks, resulting in a broader definition of cash yield and cash payout ratio measures:
- Cash Yield = (Dividends + Buybacks) / Market Capitalization
- Cash Payout Ratio = (Dividends + Buybacks)/ Net Income
The push back that you will get from dividend devotees that while dividends go to all shareholders, buybacks put cash only in the pockets of those stockholder who sell back, but that argument ignores the reality that the it is still shareholders who are getting the cash from buybacks. (As a thought experiment, imaging that you own all of the shares in a company and consider whether you notice a difference between dividends and buybacks, other than for tax purposes.) Calculating both dividend and cash measures of yield and payout over time, we observe the following for the companies in the S&P 500:
|S&P 500: Dividends, Buybacks, Mkt Cap and Net Income|
This table reinforces the message from the previous graph, which is that both dividends and buybacks have to be considered in any assessment of cash return. That is why I think that the handwringing over how low dividend yields have become over the last two decades misses the point. The cash yield for US companies, which includes both dividends and buybacks, is much more indicative of what companies are returning to shareholders and that number has remained relatively stable over time. Using the same logic that I used to argue that cash yields were better indicators of cash returned to shareholders than dividend yields, I computed cash payout ratios, by adding buybacks to dividends, before dividing by net income in the table in the last section, and it does show a disquieting pattern. In fundamental analysis, analysts give weight to the payout ratio and its twin measure, the retention ratio (1- payout ratio) as a measure of how much a company is reinvesting into its own business, in order to grow. The cash returned to shareholders exceeded net income in 2015 and 2016, and remains high, at 92.12% of net income, and that statistic seems to support the proposition that US companies are reinvesting less.
3. The drop in reinvestment may be real, but it could also be a reflection of accounting inconsistencies and failure to see the full picture on cash return
It is true that companies are returning more of their net income, as measured by accountants, to stockholders in dividends and buybacks, with the latter accounting for the lion's share of the return. Before we conclude that this is proof that companies are reinvesting less, there are two flaws in the numbers that need fixing:
- Stock Issuances: If we count stock buybacks as returning cash to shareholders, we should also be counting stock issuances as cash being invested by these same shareholders. Thus, the more relevant measure of cash return would net out stock issuances from stock buybacks, before adding dividends. While this is a lesser issue with the S&P 500 companies, which tend to be larger and more mature companies, less dependent of stock issuances, it can be a larger one for the entire market, where initial public offerings can augment seasoned equity issues, especially for smaller, higher growth companies.
- Accounting Inconsistencies: Over the last few decades, the percentage of S&P 500 companies that are in technology and health care has risen, and that rise has laid bare an accounting inconsistency on capital expenditures. If a key characteristic of capital expenditures is that money spent on them provide benefits for many years, accounting does a reasonable job in categorizing capital expenditures in manufacturing firms, where it takes the form of plant and equipment, but it does a woeful job of doing the same at firms that derive the bulk of their value from intangible assets. In particular, it treats R&D, the primary capital expenditure for technology and health care firms, brand name advertising, a key investment for the long term for consumer product companies, and customer acquisition costs, central for growth in subscriber/user driven companies as operating expenses, depressing earnings and rendering book value meaningless. In effect, companies on the S&P 500 are having their earnings measured using different rules, with the earnings for GM and 3M reflecting the correct recognition that money spent on investments designed to create benefits over many years should not be expensed, but the earnings for Microsoft and Apple being calculated after netting those same types of investments. As with the treatment of leases, I refuse to wait for accountants to come to their senses on this question, and I have been capitalizing R&D for all companies and adjusting their earnings accordingly.
In the table below, I bring in stock issues and R&D into the picture, looking across all US stocks, not just the S&P 500:
|All US publicly traded companies; S&P Capital IQ|
While the trend towards buybacks is still visible, bringing in new stock issuances tempers some of the most extreme findings. In 2018, for instance, the net cash return (with issuances netted out from dividends and buybacks) represented about 46% of adjusted net profit (with R&D added back), well below the gross cash return. In fact, there is no discernible decline in reinvestment over time, barring 2008 and 2009, the years around the last crisis. Capital expenditures have grown slowly, but an increasing percentage of reinvestment, especially in the last 5 years, has taken the form of R&D and acquisitions.
4. Buybacks cut across sectors, size classes and growth categories, but the biggest cash returners are larger, more mature companies.
Before we decide that buybacks are ravaging the economy and should be restricted or even banned, it is also worth taking a look at what types of companies are buying back the most stock. Staying with US stocks, I looked at buybacks and dividends of companies, broken down by industry grouping. The full table is at the end of this post, but based upon the dollar value of buybacks, the ten industries that bought back the least stock and the ten that bought back the most are highlighted below:
|Dividends and Buybacks: By Industry for US|
It should come as no surprise that the industries where you see buybacks used the least tend to be industries which have a history of large dividend payments, with utilities, metals and mining and real estate making the list. Looking at the industries that are the biggest buyers of their own stock, the list is dominated by companies that derive their value from intangible assets, with technology and pharmaceuticals accounting for seven of the ten top spots. While that may surprise some, since these are viewed as high growth businesses, some of the biggest players in both technology and pharmaceuticals are now middle aged or older, using my corporate life cycle structure.
Given that there are often wide differences in size and growth, within each industry grouping, I also broke companies down by market cap size, to see if smaller companies behave differently than larger ones, when it comes to buybacks:
|Market capitalization, as of 12/31/18|
It is not surprising that the largest companies account for the bulk of buybacks, but you can also see that they return far more in buybacks, as a percent of their market capitalizations, then smaller firms do.
Finally, I categorized companies based upon expected growth in the future, to see if companies that expect high growth behave differently from ones that expect low growth.
|Expected revenue growth in the next two years|
I may be guilty of letting my priors guide my reading of these tables, but as I see it, the buyback boom in the United States is being driven by large non-manufacturing firms, with low growth prospects. If you restrict buybacks, expecting that this to unleash a new era of manufacturing growth and factory jobs, I am afraid that you will be disappointed. The workers at the firms that buy back the most stock, tend to be already among the better paid in the economy, and tying buybacks to higher wages for these workers will not help those who are at the bottom of the pay scale.
5. Investing back into businesses is not always better than returning cash to shareholders, when it comes to jobs, economic growth and prosperity.
Implicit in the Schumer-Sanders proposal to restrict buy backs is the belief that while shareholders may benefit from buybacks, the economy overall will be more prosperous, and workers will be better served, if the cash that is returned to shareholders is invested back in the businesses instead. Incidentally, this seems to be a shared delusion for both ends of the political spectrum, since one of the biggest sales pitches for the tax reform act, passed in 2017, was that the cash trapped overseas by bad US tax law, would, once released, be invested into new factories and manufacturing capacity in the US. I believe that both sides are operating from a false premise, since investing money back into bad businesses can make both economies and workers worse off. In a prior post, I defined a bad business as one where it is difficult to generate a return that is higher than the risk adjusted rate that you need to make to break even on your investment.
|Data Update 6 on excess returns|
Using the return on capital, a flawed but still useful measure, as a measure of return and the cost of capital, with all of the caveats about measurement error, I found that approximately 60% of companies, both globally and in the US, earn less than their cost of capital. Forcing these companies to reinvest their earnings, rather than letting them pay it out, will only put more more money into bad businesses and create what I call "walking dead" companies, tying up capital that could be used more productively, if it were paid out to shareholders, who then can find better businesses to invest in.
6. Some companies may be funding buybacks with debt, but the bulk of buybacks are still funded with equity cash flows
The narrative about stock buybacks that its detractors tell is that US companies have borrowed money and used that debt to fund buybacks, creating, at least in the narrative, sky-high debt ratios and rising default risk. While there is certainly anecdotal evidence that you can offer for this proposition, there is evidence that we have looked at already that should lead you to question this narrative. Looking across sectors, we noted that the technology and pharmaceutical companies are on the list of biggest buyers of their own stock, and neither group is in the top ten or even twenty, when it comes to debt ratios.
Taking the naysayers at their word, I broke US companies down, based upon their debt loads, using Debt/EBITDA as the measure, from lowest to highest, to see if there is a relationship between buybacks and debt loads:
|Debt to EBITDA at the end of 2018|
The bulk of the buybacks are coming from firms with low to moderate debt ratios, falling in the second and third quintiles of debt ratios. It is true that the firms with the highest debt load, buy back the most stock, at least as a percent of their market capitalization. As with the growth data, you can view this as evidence of either short-term thinking or worse, but note that the second and third quintiles together account for 61% of overall market capitalization, suggesting that if buybacks are skewing debt upwards at some firms, it is more at the margins than at the center of the market.
7. Buybacks are now a global phenomenon
It is true that stock buybacks, at least in the form that you see them today, as cash return to stockholders, had their origins in the United States in the 1980s and it is also true that for a long time after that, much of the rest of the world either stayed with dividends and many countries had severe constraints on the use of buybacks. In the last decade, though, the dam seems to have broken and stock buybacks can now be seen in every part of the world, as can be seen in the table below:
US companies still lead the world in buybacks, but Canadian companies are playing catch up and you are seeing buybacks pick up in Europe. Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America remain holdouts, though it is unclear how much of the reluctance to buy back stock is due to poor corporate governance.
The Follow Up
I agree that wage stagnation and an unwillingness to invest into the industrial base are significant problems for US companies, but I think that buybacks are more a symptom of global economic changes, than a cause. In particular, globalization has made it more difficult for companies to generate sustained returns on investments, and has made earnings more volatile for all businesses. The lower returns on investments has led to more cash being returned, and the fear of earnings volatility has tilted companies away from dividends, which are viewed as more difficult to back out of, to buybacks. In conjunction, a shift from an Industrial Age economy to the economies of today has meant that our biggest businesses are less capital intensive and more dependent on investments in intangible assets, a trend that accounting has not been able to keep up with. You can ban or restrict buybacks, but that will not make investment projects more lucrative and earnings more predictable, and it certainly is not going to create a new industrial age.
If you came into this article with a strong bias against buybacks it is unlikely that I will be able to convince you that buybacks are benign, and it is very likely that you will be in favor, like Senators Schumer and Sanders, on restricting not just buybacks, but cash returns (including dividends), in general. Playing devil’s advocate, let’s assume that you succeed and play out what the effects of these restrictions will be on how much companies invest collectively and employee wages.
- On the investment front, it is true that companies that used to buy back large numbers of their own shares will now have more cash to invest, but in what? It could be in more internal investments or projects, but given that many of these companies were buying back stock because they could not find good projects in the first place, it would have to be in projects that don’t earn a high enough returns to cover their hurdle rates. Perhaps, it will be in acquisitions, and while that will make M&A deal makers happy, the corporate track record is woeful. In either case, you will have more reinvestment in the wrong segments of the economy, at the expense of investments in the segments that need them more.
- On the wage front, the consequences will be even messier. It is possible that tying buybacks to employee wages, as Senators Schumer and Sanders propose, will cause some companies to raise wages for existing employees, but with what consequences? Since they will now be paying much higher wages than their competitors, my guess is that these same companies will be quicker to shift to automation and will have smaller workforces in the future, and that those at the low end of the pay scale will be most hurt by this substitution.
Illustrating my point about anecdotal evidence, the senators use Walmart and Harley Davidson to make their case, arguing that both companies should not have expended the money that they did on buybacks, and taken investments or raised wages instead.
- Assuming that Walmart had followed their advice and not bought back stock and invested instead, it is unlikely that Walmart would have opened more stores in the United States, a saturated market, but would have opened them instead in other countries, and I don’t believe that the senators would view more stores being built in Indonesia or India as the outcome they were hoping for. As for Harley Davidson, a company that serves a loyal, but niche market, building another factory may have created more jobs for the moment, but it is not at all clear that the demand exists for the bikes that would roll out.
- Would Walmart have raised wages, if they had not bought back stock? In a retail landscape, where Amazon lays waste to any competitor with a higher cost structure, that would have been suicidal, and accelerated the flow of customers to Amazon, allowing that company to become even more dominant. In a world where people complain about how the FANG stocks are taking over the world, you would be playing into their hands, by handcuffing their brick and mortar competitors, with buyback legislation.
In short, restricting buybacks may lead to more reinvestment, but much of it will be in bad businesses, acquisitions of existing entities and often in other countries. Tying buybacks to employee wage levels may boost the pay for existing employees, but will lead to fewer new hires, increasing automation and smaller workforces over time. In short, the ills that the Schumer-Sanders bill tries to cure will get worse, as a result of their efforts, rather than better.
I believe that the shift to buybacks reflects fundamental shifts in competition and earnings risk, but I don't wear rose colored glasses, when looking at the phenomenon. There are clearly some firms that are buying back stock, when they clearly should not be, paying out cash that could be better used on paying down debt, especially in the aftermath of the reduction of tax benefits of debt, or taking investments that can generate returns that exceed their hurdle rates. You may consider me naive, but I believe that the market, while it may be fooled for the moment, will catch on and punish these firms. Also, the data suggests that these bad players are more the exception than the rule, and banning all buybacks or writing in restrictions on buybacks for all companies strikes me as overkill, especially since the promised benefits of higher capital investment and wages are likely to be illusory or transitory. If you are tempted to back these restrictions, because you believe they are well intentioned, it is worth remembering that history is full of well intentioned legislation delivering perverse results.
January 2019 Data Updates
- Data Update 1: A Reminder that equities are risky, in case you forgot!
- Data Update 2: The Message from Bond Markets
- Data Update 3: Playing the Numbers Game
- Data Update 4: The Many Faces of Risk
- Data Update 5: Of Hurdle Rates and Funding Costs!
- Data Update 6: Profitability and Value Creation!
- Data Update 7: Debt, neither poison nor nectar!
- Data Update 8: Dividends and Buybacks - Fact and Fiction!
- Data Update 9: Playing the Pricing Game!