It’s no secret that stock buybacks have experienced a boom in popularity with management teams and investors over the last several years. With last year’s lowering of the corporate tax rate to 21% and repatriation rates as low as 8% spurring a flood of overseas cash back to the U.S., aggregate share repurchases are likely to surpass their 2007 all-time high and could hit $800 billion this year.
Much ink has been spilled in the controversy over buybacks in recent months. Management teams and sell-side analysts regularly trumpet them as a boon for shareholders, and until this year, announcements of major buyback programs usually provided a boost in stock price. On the other end of the spectrum, politicians like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin, who have publicly cast buybacks as nothing more than a way for CEOs to line their own pockets, have introduced legislation to ban buybacks altogether.
Like most controversial topics, the reality is more nuanced than either camp is willing to admit. First, buybacks may be at all-time highs in dollar amounts, but they’re well below both pre- and post-financial crisis peaks in more meaningful inflation- and size-adjusted terms, such as net buybacks as a percentage of market cap, a figure AQR examined in January.
Second, much of the venom directed at buybacks centers around the belief that management teams are repurchasing shares while neglecting reinvestment in R&D or capital expenditures. But buying back shares and reinvesting in the business are not mutually exclusive, and as data recently collected by Ritholtz Wealth Management research director Michael Batnick showed, R&D and capex spending are both very healthy.
The truth is buybacks are not inherently good or bad for investors — it all depends how they’re used. At their core, buybacks — like dividends — are a tool for returning excess cash to shareholders. Instead of distributing the cash directly, management uses it to reduce the number of shares outstanding so that each remaining holder owns a slightly larger share of the company.
As value investors, we believe every company has a price (or range of prices) that a rational buyer should be willing to pay to own the underlying business. This “intrinsic value” can be based on tangible or intangible assets the company owns, or on its long-term expected cash flows discounted at a reasonable required rate of return. The key factor that determines whether a buyback creates or destroys value is whether the shares are acquired at prices above or below this underlying business value.
Let’s assume that a company, Acme Corp., has excess cash worth $10 per share and has already identified and reinvested in any R&D and capital projects that meet its internal hurdle for return on investment. Acme is left with the choice of either sitting on the cash and earning 1-2% or returning it to shareholders as a dividend or buyback. If management decides to distribute the cash, which tool should it choose? The answer, again, lies in intrinsic value.