Of Stock Buybacks And Dividends (MMM, COST, KO)
Jim Trippon: On the face of it, stock buybacks look like good things. After all, the company is investing its cash in the company itself. If that isn’t a vote of confidence, what is? The company usually repurchases outstanding shares and retires them. Investors then own a larger stake proportionately in the company, and that includes things like a larger portion of earnings. The market often reacts to stocks which announce buybacks by pushing up the share price.
These can be good strategic moves for companies, particularly those that have excess cash. Investing in the company itself can strengthen shareholders’ investment, and this is often considered the best use for cash. Contrast this with companies that have squandered their capital with bad acquisitions, often on businesses that don’t mesh with their core business, which can seriously affect the value of the company and the worth of the shareholders’ investment.
Are Buybacks Always A Good Thing?
But what about when share buybacks either don’t work or are not even the best use of a company’s capital? After all, shareholders are interested in the best return for their investment. For dividend investors, which can include anyone from pure income only investors to those investors who buy shares in stocks of companies that provide a combination of yield and capital appreciation, the share buyback, particularly if it’s instead of a dividend or in lieu of dividend growth, can be a less attractive alternative.
Example Of Financial Ratios And Stock Buybacks
The most notable scenarios when stock buybacks aren’t good for investors are when the company buys shares to spin its financial results.Very simply, when shares are bought and retired, there are fewer shares outstanding, so earnings per share improves. Of course it improves without actual improvement in the business, or net income, as it’s just a way of tweaking the financial arithmetic to make things look better. All the financial numbers calculated on a per share basis, such as cash flow per share and so on, look better, but of course they aren’t. The obvious financial engineering not only fails to improve the business’ fundamentals, but after a while, even this won’t help lower and lower earnings.
Not only is the cash not going,for example, to dividend investors via a dividend increase, but there’s another less obvious reason for buybacks: to prop up share value for executive compensation. With many executives receiving significant compensation in the form of stock options, the buyback artificially inflates the EPS and pumps up the value of the options. Again, meanwhile, the shareholder, hungrily awaiting a dividend or a dividend increase—actual, tangible cash, gets the short end of this deal, in this case nothing.
Costco Stock Repurchase Vs. Dividend
Another maddening aspect of the stock buyback, even if it’s executed otherwise as a reasonable way of deploying the company’s cash in a fundamentally healthy, growing company,
is when a company executes its stock repurchase program at unfavorable prices. One of the otherwise excellent companies that’s done this is Costco Wholesale (NASDAQ:COST), which purchased far fewer shares in their stock buyback program in 2009 when its share prices were lower, compared to buying back more shares more recently at a higher price. Another otherwise good company that’s done something similar is 3M (NYSE:MMM). After the severe market break in 2009 it effectively nearly ceased buying back its shares which it had been repurchasing before the crisis. Buybacks resumed in force after 2009, but a problem was the share price, which bottomed at nearly $40 during the financial crisis, eventually rose back to the $80 to $90 range. So the buybacks were executed at higher share prices rather than lower ones.
3M Stock Buybacks Vs. Share Price
A Question Of Value
While investors and companies can disagree which approach is better, for dividend investors, there is probably a bias toward value. That is, the company’s fundamentals are paramount, so the financial engineering and gimmicky buybacks should be met with due scorn. When a shareholder receives a dividend, he or she has the option of reinvesting it, saving it, or spending it on something else entirely. It’s real, actual cash in hand. Most investors, and particularly dividend investors, prefer this. If companies, such as Coca Cola (NYSE:KO), which grows its earnings and revenue solidly over time, pays a steady, growing dividend, and want to add share buybacks into the mix, as it has successfully done, then that’s a combination most investors will happily accept.
Jim Trippon, founder of Trippon Financial Media, Inc., is a maverick that has dedicated his investment career to helping investors make smarter financial and stock selection decisions. Trippon, an internationally recognized expert on global and value investing, has a deep passion for finding hidden value in global equity markets. Trippon started his career as a financial statement examiner with Price Waterhouse which allows him to dissect a public company’s financial picture and better identify hidden gems. Trippon’s savvy approach to investing and personal finance makes him in high demand by major media who seek his unique perspective on stocks and global economics. He has been featured in top publications both in the US and abroad including Bloomberg, Investor’s Business Daily, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, Stock Futures and Options Magazine, The Bull and Bear Financial Report and he regularly appears on broadcast television including as an on air contributor to CNBC, CNN, Fox Business, and Fox News.
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