U.S. corporate buybacks are on the rise in 2021 lifting investor spirits after last year’s pandemic dampened activity. While most investors are eager to see how much buybacks may support their investments, some are confused over what they are and how they work, and whether they are actually good or bad for a company’s stock price.
Corporations often buy back large blocks of their stocks typically when share prices are low, but some may choose for other reasons to buy their company’s stock even when analysts believe company shares are overvalued. Whether they buy their shares at cheap or expensive levels, a stock buyback is not always beneficial for individual investors.
Stock repurchases weren’t always legal per se. After the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, the U.S. government passed the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 to try to prevent it from happening again.
The 1934 legislation didn’t bar stock buybacks, per se, but it barred companies from doing anything to manipulate their stock prices. Companies knew that if they did a stock buyback, it could open them up to accusations from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) of trying to manipulate their stock price, so most just didn’t.
Tax cuts during the Trump administration made stock repurchases very popular as corporations spent billions on their own stock to reward shareholders and investors. However, corporate executives and insiders have also been accused of taking advantage of the stock buyback boom to sell shares they own to the companies they work for, profiting handsomely. Companies are spending millions or billions of dollars to reward shareholders and prop up their stock prices with buybacks, even if that means laying off workers to do it.
Recently, the Biden Administration announced it was planning on reforming current tax laws. If corporations begin to fear that some of the tax advantages of a stock buyback may be reduced or eliminated then this may encourage companies to become more active in 2021 before the tax changes become law.
What is a Stock Buyback?
A stock buyback, also known as a share repurchase, takes place when a corporation buys its own outstanding shares in order to reduce the number of shares available on the open market.
In a stock buyback, a company repurchases its own shares from the broader marketplace, usually through the open market. That leaves the remaining shareholders with a bigger chunk of the company and increases the earnings they reap per share, on top of the regular dividend payments that companies make to shareholders out of their profits.
Why Companies Perform Buybacks
Corporations buy back shares for a number of reasons such as to increase the value of remaining shares available by reducing the supply of outstanding shares or to prevent other shareholders from taking a controlling stake, sometimes called a hostile takeover.
Another reason for a buyback is for compensation purposes. Companies often award their corporate employees with stock and stock options. This benefits the existing shareholders and board members who are usually paid in stock options.
Pros of Stock Buybacks for Investors
- Boost in share prices
- Rising dividends
- Better earnings per share
- Less excess cash
- Positive psychology
“With the market being as expensive as it seems, share repurchases could drive the market that much higher,” said Robert Pavlik, senior portfolio manager at Dakota Wealth in Fairfield, Connecticut.
“It adds to the Street’s belief that there’s an underlying bid, we’re not in this alone, and someone else is going to support the stock and that’s the company,” he said. “It turns out to be a good thing for share prices. But they run the risk of overvaluing stocks, and it speaks to the broader question about why companies are doing it.”
Cons of Stock Buybacks for Investors
- Poor predictions
- Sinking dividends
- Poor use of capital
- Management self-interest
- Cover for stock handouts
Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, one of the largest investment companies in the world, in 2014 warned U.S. companies to slow down on buybacks and dividends.
“We certainly believe that returning cash to shareholders should be part of a balanced capital strategy; however, when done for the wrong reasons and at the expense of capital investment, it can jeopardize a company’s ability to generate sustainable long-term returns,” he wrote in a letter.
Recent Activity Indicates Companies Leaning to the Pro Side
The rapidly improving economy and stocks at record highs may be fueling a flurry of stock buyback activity in 2021.
Banks have improved their capital positions and should be allowed to continue to buy back their own shares, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in March.
Regulators restricted share repurchases in 2020 for the biggest institutions in the country as a precautionary measure after COVID-19 reached pandemic status. After those banks passed a pandemic-focused stress test in December, the Federal Reserve said it would allow buybacks to resume, though with some restrictions.
Yellen, speaking in March before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, said she agreed with allowing the share buybacks.
“I have been opposed earlier when we were very concerned about the situation the banks would face about stock buybacks,” Yellen said. “But financial institutions look healthier now, and I believe they should have some of the liberty provided by the rules to make returns to shareholders.”
They are expected to do just that as the buyback restrictions eased during the first quarter of 2021.
While Yellen see no problem with financial institutions resuming buyback activity, Warren Buffett’s capital-deployment machine pulled back on several fronts at the start of the year as the billionaire took a more cautious stance on stocks.
Berkshire Hathaway Inc slowed its buyback pace, according to a regulatory filing Saturday. Buffett has struggled in recent years to keep up with Berkshire’s ever-gushing cash flow. That’s led him to repurchase significant amounts of Berkshire stock, pulling a lever for capital deployment that he had previously avoided in favor of big acquisitions or stock purchases. He set a record in the third quarter of last year, snapping up $9 billion of stocks, but slowed that pace during the first quarter with repurchases of $6.6 billion.
Berkshire repurchased more stock in January and February than the company did in March when the stock climbed 5.8% according to the filing. Buffett’s long been disciplined on the price of buybacks, noting in 2018 when the company loosened its repurchase policy that he and his longtime business partner and Berkshire Vice Chairman Charlie Munger can repurchase shares when they’re below Berkshire’s intrinsic value.
Despite buybacks that fell short of Buffett’s quarterly record, the billionaire investor has continued to go after Berkshire’s own stock since the end of March, with at least $1.25 billion of repurchases through April 22, according to the filing. And given that Berkshire has no set amount allocated for buyback plans, sizable repurchases are still a nice bit of capital deployment, according to CFRA Research analyst Cathy Seifert.
“The fact that Berkshire allocated over $6 billion to buybacks this quarter is going to be positively received by investors” Seifert said.
What Bloomberg Intelligence Says
“The $6.6 billion 1Q buyback was an expected drop from 4Q, but still significant. Nearly all segments showed accelerated revenue and earnings.”
Share Buyback Plans are Booming
Corporate buyback announcements ‘exploded’ as trading in April wrapped up and that helped push stocks higher, said Vanda Research.
A jump in buybacks should help soften the blow in the U.S. equity market in the event of a drawdown.
“As net equity supply shrinks every dollar invested in the U.S. market will have a larger marginal impact,” said Vanda.