America’s biggest companies are still spending hundreds of billions of dollars devouring themselves.
Share buybacks executed by members of the S&P 500 rose 16% in the third quarter, according to data from FactSet out on Tuesday.
Information technology (specifically Apple, Microsoft, and Qualcomm), financial, and industrial firms leading the way. The number of companies buying back stock during the quarter totaled 383, up from 380 in the prior quarter.
The maths on stock buybacks is pretty simple: by repurchasing your own company’s stock in the market you reduce the number of shares outstanding, thereby increasing your earnings per share by cutting your denominator (earnings per share is calculated by dividing income by shares outstanding).
Over the 12-months ending September 30, 2015, S&P 500 companies have spent 64.6% of their net income on share repurchases.
But during this same period, a full 130 companies have spent more on buybacks over this period than they generated in net income. This is the highest number since the recession and a potentially worrying sign for those who argue that buybacks are merely an empty form of financial engineering meant to goose share prices and potentially reward executives.
Now share buybacks aren’t necessarily a bad thing, and in fact are Warren Buffett’s preferred method for returning cash to shareholders — as opposed to dividends — because they give management more flexibility.
But in Buffett’s ideal world, all excess cash is used to buy other companies that grow shareholders’ per-share earnings. In lieu of an attractive investment, and if Berkshire shares trade below what Buffett believes they’re worth, the company will and has repurchased shares in the past.
And whether all buybacks being executed right now are by companies that have stocks trading at a discount relative to their book value, well, seems unlikely.
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