The Stock-Buyback Swinde
This well written article says that American corporations are spending trillions of dollars to repurchase their own stock. “The practice is enriching CEOs—at the expense of everyone else.”
It wasn’t always thus – buybacks are a recent fad. “Before the 1980s, corporations rarely repurchased shares of their own stock. When they started to, it was typically a defensive move intended to fend off raiders, who were drawn to cash piles on a company’s balance sheet. By contrast, according to Federal Reserve data compiled by Goldman Sachs, over the past nine years, corporations have put more money into their own stocks—an astonishing $3.8 trillion—than every other type of investor (individuals, mutual funds, pension funds, foreign investors) combined.”
So why do companies buyback their own shares? Finance 101 says that “By reducing the number of shares outstanding in the market, a buyback lifts the price of each remaining share.” But the challenge is that this share price spike is shortlived. “A study by the research firm Fortuna Advisors found that, five years out, the stocks of companies that engaged in heavy buybacks performed worse for shareholders than the stocks of companies that didn’t.”
The real reason that companies do buybacks has nothing to do with shareholders. “One class of shareholder, however, has benefited greatly from the temporary price jumps: the managers who initiate buybacks and are privy to their exact scope and timing. Last year, SEC Commissioner Robert Jackson Jr. instructed his staff to “take a look at how buybacks affect how much skin executives keep in the game.” This analysis revealed that in the eight days following a buyback announcement, executives on average sold five times as much stock as they had on an ordinary day. “Thus,” Jackson said, “executives personally capture the benefit of the short-term stock-price pop created by the buyback announcement.””
The article goes on to give some great examples of what look like seriously questionable buybacks: “Today, the abuse of stock buybacks is so widespread that naming abusers is a bit like singling out snowflakes for ruining the driveway. But somebody needs to be called out.
So take Craig Menear, the chairman and CEO of Home Depot. On a conference call with investors in February 2018, he and his team mentioned their “plan to repurchase approximately $4 billion of outstanding shares during the year.” The next day, he sold 113,687 shares, netting $18 million.* The following day, he was granted 38,689 new shares, and promptly unloaded 24,286 shares for a profit of $4.5 million. Though Menear’s stated compensation in SEC filings was $11.4 million for 2018, stock sales helped him earn an additional $30 million for the year.
By contrast, the median worker pay at Home Depot is $23,000 a year. If the money spent on buybacks had been used to boost salaries, the Roosevelt Institute and the National Employment Law Project calculated, each worker would have made an additional $18,000 a year. But buybacks are more than just unfair. They’re myopic. Amazon (which hasn’t repurchased a share in seven years) is presently making the sort of investments in people, technology, and products that could eventually make Home Depot irrelevant. When that happens, Home Depot will probably wish it hadn’t spent all those billions to buy back 35 percent of its shares. “When you’ve got a mature company, when everything seems to be going smoothly, that’s the exact moment you need to start worrying Jeff Bezos is going to start eating your lunch,” the shareholder activist Nell Minow told me.”