20190226 stock buyback

Editor’s Note: Rita McGrath is a professor at Columbia Business School and author of The End of Competitive Advantage. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.

The widespread use of share buybacks among publicly traded American firms has reached an inflection point. Although academics and researchers at think tanks have been critical of the practice for years, politicians and the public at large are starting to pay attention, too. Proposals from politicians such as Chuck Schumer, Marco Rubio and Tammy Baldwin seek to give the SEC greater oversight over buybacks by restricting them, ending their tax advantages or by banning the practice altogether. Indeed, buybacks disproportionately benefit investors and executives, with little heed for the other stakeholders who have spent the time, effort and money on creating the profits the company is redistributing in the first place. It’s time to ban stock buybacks.

That may be a tall order. Buybacks make some investors and many corporate executives very, very rich. There are also some legitimate reasons for companies to repurchase shares — for instance, if their leaders believe the stock is undervalued, or to make shareholders whole after employees receive stock grants. And they represent one reliable way for management to boost the company’s stock price — which makes sense, given the uncertainty around Brexit, trade wars and government shutdowns. And they are decisions that mostly fly under the radar — ordinary people seldom wake up in the morning breathless with anticipation about the latest buyback news.

But we should care more. The bulk of executive pay is now tied to a company’s stock price, creating an incentive to make that price as high as possible. Prior to a 1982 SEC rule change, buybacks were illegal, as they were seen as a form of stock price manipulation. You don’t have to be a genius to realize that if the bulk of executive compensation is tied to a company’s stock price and buybacks make that price go up, that there will be powerful incentives for executives to put money into buybacks. Even buyback proponents recognize that the current lack of transparency and incentives to make decisions for the benefit of executives is problematic.

Still, though, stock buybacks are rife with unintended consequences.

Increased risks for long-term shareholders

Essentially, a company is trading in a safe asset (cash) for a risky one (stock) when it buys back stock. The value of cash doesn’t change with the vagaries of the market, but the value of a company’s stock can vary.

Further, companies tend to invest in buybacks when they have cash and times are good; and they refrain from the practice in hard times. In other words, they’re using current shareholder’s money to, in effect, buy high and sell low.

Less money for investment

Money used to repurchase shares extracts capital from the organization that could otherwise be used as a buffer against hard times, to pay and develop workers, to invest in innovation, to create the foundation for a more robust future and to contribute to healthier local communities. The numbers are staggering. In 2018 alone, companies spent a record $1 trillion on buybacks. Unlike other ways of returning excess cash to investors, such as dividends, buybacks can distort financial measures, such as earnings per share. Fewer shares? Voila, higher earnings per share.

A recent analysis by CNBC found that companies in the S&P 1500 that engaged in the most buybacks relative to their market capitalizations underperformed compared to their peers who didn’t engage in the practice. Analysis by Deloitte found that the share of GDP being directed toward stock buybacks was increasing steadily, while the share devoted to investments in equipment and structures is flat or falling. Just look at General Electric. GE spent $24 billion on buybacks in 2016 and 2017, at an average price of $30.30 per share and $19.65 per share, respectively. Today, the stock is worth about $10 a share.

And we can’t forget Sears. Since 2005, it spent $6 billion buying back shares, which it could have used for long-term investment that might have kept it from going bankrupt.

Money that flows out of organizations to shareholders is money that could have gone toward worker pay. One recent analysis found that the top five companies in the restaurant industry spent so much on buybacks from 2015 to 2017 that they could have afforded pay increases by an average of 25% for ordinary workers without changing anything else about their operations. Starbucks, for instance, could have given every one of its workers a $7,000 raise if it reallocated funds from buybacks to compensation.

Distorted reality

The buyback phenomenon is also associated with a uniquely American anomaly. Our corporate leaders make more — a lot more — than CEOs in other parts of the world.

They are also compensated at a much higher worker-to-CEO pay ratio than in other places, according to a Bloomberg analysis. And this is in an environment in which a major predictor of how well a company’s stock performs is beyond executive control. In a context in which most stocks are rising, even moderately competent leaders can appear to be doing well. After the great recession, in which share prices took a beating, almost every company was going to experience an increased stock price as the economy recovered, increases which rewarded whoever happened to be in the top jobs at the time.

Buybacks distort incentives in other ways, too. Dividends encourage stockholders to retain stocks for a long time, since that’s how they will make money. Buybacks, however, reward those who sell their stocks — not those who hang in there. This has led even hard-nosed investors, such as Blackrock’s Larry Fink, to express concern that companies are not investing enough for the long term.

The role of buybacks in any number of negative outcomes — from underinvestment in the future to exacerbating income inequality — needs to be better understood. It’s about time this practice is getting the scrutiny that it deserves.