Are Stock Buybacks Really A Big Problem?

I read a recent article in the Wall Street Journal entitled The Real Problem with Stock Buybacks (WSJ paywall)  which spent a lot of time discussing multiple pitfalls of stock buybacks and touched on some lawmakers in Washington who would like to limit, or completely outlaw, the practice. To say I was dumbstruck by the piece would almost be an understatement.

Let me go through some of the article’s points.

First, the idea that the SEC should have the ability to limit corporate buybacks, if in its judgment, carrying them out would hurt workers or is not in the long-term best interest of the company.

To be fair, the authors disagreed with this idea. They were simply bringing to readers’ attention that it was out there. Public companies are owned by shareholders, and those shareholders are represented by the board of directors (whom they vote for). The CEO serves the board on behalf of those shareholders, though admittedly this is a problem when the CEO is also Chairman. As such, the government really has no place to tell boards how to allocate profits from the business that belong to the shareholders. This should be obvious, but evidently it is not to some. The entire activist investor concept is based on the idea that too few times investors pressure boards to act more strongly on their behalf. The system works, and should stay as-is.

The authors, however, do make an assertion of their own that I fail to understand. They claim that the real problem with stock buybacks is that they transfer wealth from shareholders to executives. More specifically, they state:

“Researchers have shown that executives opportunistically use repurchases to shrink the share count and thereby trigger earnings-per-share-based bonuses. Executives also use buybacks to create temporary additional demand for shares, nudging up the short-term stock price as executives unload equity. Finally, managers who know the stock is cheap use open-market repurchases to secretly buy back shares, boosting the value of their long-term equity. Although continuing public shareholders also profit from this indirect insider trading, selling public shareholders lose by a greater amount, reducing investor returns in aggregate.”

This paragraph makes no sense, and of course, the authors (a couple of Harvard professors unlikely to have much real world financial market experience) offer up zero data or evidence to support their claims.

So let’s address their claims one sentence at a time:

“Researchers have shown that executives opportunistically use repurchases to shrink the share count and thereby trigger earnings-per-share-based bonuses.”

This statement implies that a shrinking share count and earnings per share growth are bad, or at least suboptimal. Why? The reason executive bonuses are based, in many cases, on earnings per share, is because company boards are working for the shareholders, and those shareholders want to see their stock prices rise over time. Since earnings per share are the single most important factor in establishing market prices for public stock, it is entirely rational to reward executives when they grow earnings.

“Executives also use buybacks to create temporary additional demand for shares, nudging up the short-term stock price as executives unload equity.”

Insiders are notorious for owning very little of their own company’s stock. Aside from founder/CEO situations, most CEOs own less than 1% of their company’s stock. In fact, many boards are now requiring executives to own more company stock, in order to align their interests with the other shareholders even more. As such, the idea that executives unload stock at alarming rates, and that such actions form the bulk of their compensation, is not close to the truth in aggregate.

In addition, if the stock price is being supported, in part, by stock buybacks, does that not help all investors equally? Just as insiders can sell shares at these supposed elevated prices, can’t every other shareholder do the same? At that case, how are the executives benefiting more than other shareholders?

“Finally, managers who know the stock is cheap use open-market repurchases to secretly buy back shares, boosting the value of their long-term equity.”

This one makes no sense. Insiders buyback stock when it’s cheap?! Oh no, what a calamity! In reality, company’s have a poor record of buying back stock when it is cheap and often overpay for shares. Every investor in the world would be ecstatic if managers bought back stock only when it was cheap.

And how are buybacks a secret? Boards disclose buyback authorizations in advance and every quarter the company will announce how many shares they bought and at what price. It is true that such data is between 2 and 14 weeks delayed before it is published, but that hardly matters.

Again, the authors imply that increasing the value of stock is bad for investors, unless those investors are company insiders. In those cases they are getting away with something nefarious. In reality, each shareholder benefits from stock buybacks in proportion to their ownership level (i.e. equally).

“Although continuing public shareholders also profit from this indirect insider trading, selling public shareholders lose by a greater amount, reducing investor returns in aggregate.”

Huh? Buying back cheap stock reduces investor returns and hurts public shareholders? I can only assume that the authors simply do not understand as well as they should what exactly buybacks accomplish and what good capital allocation looks like. It is a shame that the Wall Street Journal would publish an opinion so clearly misguided.

What Are Typical S&P 500 P/E Multiples Under More Normal Interest Rate Environments?

The U.S. stock market has been skittish lately, largely on fears of higher interest rates. As new Fed Chairman Jerome Powell takes over for Janet Yellen, and Congress passes multiple pieces of legislation that will swell the budget deficit, investors are getting more nervous about higher rates.

What is amazing about this dialogue is that a 3% yield on the 10-year bond is scaring some people, whereas throughout history 3% would look like a dream come true for equity investors. The issue, of course, is that a 3% 10-year yield is only problematic when the market’s valuation has been elevated due to such low rates. It does not really matter if 3% is still low, but rather, if 3% is higher than the 1.5-2.5% range we have seen for many years now.

So let’s assume that rates are heading higher and a sub-3% 10-year bond will become a thing of the past over the next year or two (I will not even hazard a guess as to exact timing). The S&P 500 ended 2017 trading at more than 21x trailing 12-month earnings, so that multiple will need to come down as rates rise. But by how much?

Fortunately, we do not have to go back very far in time to find instances of the 10-year bond trading in the 3-5% range. In fact, from 2002 through 2010, it traded in that range most of the time:

During that near-decade long period of time the S&P 500 index traded for between 13 and 20x trailing earnings, with the mean and median both coming out to around 17x. If we use price-to-peak earnings ratios (to smooth out earnings volatility due to the economic cycle (P/E ratios are artificially high during earnings recessions), the mean and medians are around 16x.

So it is fair to say that a more normalized interest rate environment could bring P/E ratios down to around 16.5x, on average, with the 10-year bond yielding 5% or less, but more than it does today. Well, that tells is a lot about where stock prices could trend in coming years. Consider the table below:

The consensus forecast for 2018 S&P 500 earnings is about $155 but that could prove a bit optimistic (companies are always very positive about their go-forward prospects when a new year begins). Above I showed a range of $145-$155, which would still represent strong year-over-year growth of 20% at the midpoint (due largely to the recently enacted tax cuts).

You can see that if P/E ratios were to come back down to the 16-17x range, assuming the 10-year yield moved towards 4% by year-end 2018 on the back of 3-4 Fed rate hikes), the U.S. market could be in for some sideways to slightly down price action. Today the market trades for about 19x the current $155 earnings projection.

The good news is that valuation and interest rate normalization should not, in and of itself, be hugely detrimental to stock prices as long as earnings hold firm. Assuming no recession, my worst case scenario would probably be a 16x multiple on $145 of earnings (S&P 500 at 2,320), which while not a fun path to take, would only represent about 8.5% additional downside relative to the market’s recent low earlier this month.  That is not exactly a super-scary outcome, and it probably is not even the most likely base case scenario. Buyers could easily come in at 17x earnings and if profits reached $150 this year, that would mean we have already seen the low point for the S&P 500 this year.

 

Momentum Trading Cuts Both Directions

Back on Monday October 19, 1987, the Dow fell 508 points, which was a decline of more than 22% in a single day. Today that same decline equates to roughly 2%. With the Dow trading at such high levels, in absolute point terms, a large decline might seem scary if not presented in percentage terms. The same is true when the financial media likes to focus on every 1,000 Dow points, as if a move from 25,000 to 26,000 is anything more than a simple 4% gain that historically takes less than 6 months, on average.

So rather than care about “a 1,000 point Dow decline!” let’s look at a one-year chart of the S&P 500 for some perspective:

As you can see, all we have done over the last two days, when the Dow has dropped 1,600 points, is give back the gains booked in January! When I look at this chart, I don’t see the mother load of all buying opportunities yet. I probably would not get even a little bit giddy about buying U.S. stocks unless we got back down to 2,400 or 2,500. That does not mean it will get there, or that I think it might (I — like anybody else — have no clue).

Momentum markets work in both directions, and when computerized algorithms conduct much of the daily trading in the stock market, moves like we see today can happen with ease, and most importantly, without tangible “reasons” behind them.

Most of the time I wish we could go back to the days when stocks were less volatile, a 10% correction occurred about once a year, on average, and the media did not over-hype days like today. It will make for good, scary headlines, but that’s about it.

No Bitcoin Bubble Here: Pink Sheet Listed CRCW Market Cap Hits $10 Billion

If you were an active investor back in the late 1990’s you probably remember what the climate was like during the dot-com bubble. All a company needed to do was issue a press release announcing they were going to launch a web site to sell their product online and their stock price would skyrocket. This CNET article on oldies music marketer K-Tel, which saw a 10x jump in share price in just a month back in 1998, offers a good refresher.

The current bubble in cryptocurrencies is worse, in my view, because unlike the Internet (which many will agree was the most important innovation of that generation) it is not clear that we really have any need for virtual coins, which like any collectible will see their value swing wildly based on what someone is willing to pay for them on any given day. Maybe I am just ignorant and will be proven wrong in coming years, but I don’t see why a bitcoin is any different than a piece of art, a baseball card, or a beanie baby. They all have a finite supply and little or no intrinsic value.

If you need evidence of a bubble in bitcoins and the fact that the price has gone from $3 when I first heard about them in January 2012 (Featured on Season 3/Episode 13 of CBS’s “The Good Wife” – streaming available for free on Amazon Prime Video) to $17,000 today is not enough, look no further than shares of The Crypto Company, an unlisted stock trading on the pink sheets under the symbol CRCW.

On November 15th, The Crypto Company announced financial results for the third quarter. There is no business here. Revenue came in at whopping $6,000 (consulting fees). Cash in the bank stood at $2.6 million, plus another $900,000 worth of cryptocurrencies.

How much is a company with a few million dollars of assets and no operating business worth? Well, the stock closed that day at $20, giving it a market value of $415 million (~20.7 million total shares outstanding).

But wait, that’s not the crazy part.

Shares of CRCW have surged nearly 24,000 percent in just 30 days since then, valuing the company at $10 billion. That is a bubble, folks.

 

 

 

 

U.S. Stocks Reach Valuations Rarely Seen, Making Material Earnings Growth A Requirement For Strong Future Returns

In the face of the current highly ebullient stock market, close watchers of valuation metrics are frequently dismissed as ignoring the prospect for accelerating GDP growth and lower corporate tax expense, but I will step onto that turf anyway. It may make me look foolish, as Warren Buffett recently played down concerns about the market’s valuation, even though his often-preferred metric in years past (total stock market value relative to annual GDP) is dangerously high, but that’s okay.

Here is a look at my preferred valuation metric; a variant of the P/E ratio that uses “peak earnings” (the highest level of corporate profits ever produced in a 12 month period) instead of trailing 12 month earnings (impacted solely by the current economic environment) or forward earnings estimates (usually overly optimistic). We’ll go back more than 50 years, not only to get an idea of historical trends, but also because that is the data I have.

When people ask me about my view of the market, I tend to give a tempered response because it is hard to argue that we should really get any earnings multiple expansion. After all, we now sit above 20 times “peak earnings” and that has only happened once in the last 55 years. As you can see, that one time (the dot-com bubble of the late 1990’s) is not exactly a time we probably want to emulate this time around.

It is important to note that high valuations do not guarantee poor future returns. There is a high correlation, but you can map out mathematical scenarios whereby P/E ratios mean-revert and stock prices don’t crater. Simply put, it requires extraordinary earnings growth that can more than offset a decline in P/E ratios (which we should expect if interest rates continue to increase). Right now the U.S. market is banking on this outcome, so earnings and interest rates are probably the most important things to watch in coming quarters and years when trying to gauge where the market might go from here.

Author’s note: The use of “peak earnings” is not common, so it is worth offering a brief explanation for why I prefer that metric. Essentially, it adjusts for recessions, which are temporary events. If investors use depressed earnings figures when they value the market, they might conclude stocks are not undervalued even if prices have declined materially. This is because they inherently assume that earnings will stay low, even though recessions typically last only 6-12 months and end fairly abruptly.

As an example, let’s consider the 2008 recession. The S&P 500 fell 38% that year, from 1468 to 903. S&P earnings fell by 40%, from ~$82 to ~$50. If we simply use trailing 12-month earnings, we see that the P/E multiple on the index was 18x at the beginning of 2008, and was also 18x at the end of the year. So were stocks no more attractively priced after a near 40% fall? Of course they were, but using traditional P/E ratios didn’t make that evident.

If we instead used “peak earnings” (which were attained in 2006 at ~$88), we would have determined that the market was trading at ~17x at the outset of 2008 and had fallen to just 10x by the end of the year. By that metric, investors would have realized that stocks were a screaming buy when the S&P traded below 1,000.

 

Dow 20,000: Just A Number

How about that? Dow 20,000! What a hugely important milestone! Right? Well, not really.

Sure it will make for a good front page story in USA Today tomorrow, and those few humans who are still needed on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange (they’ve been largely replaced by machines) will unpack the Dow 20K hats for sure, but Dow 20,000 is no more important than Dow 18,763.

When the Dow Jones Industrial Average is this high, we actually would expect new milestones to be reached on a very regular basis. An average stock market year (+10%) would actually see us break through another 1,000 point level every six months. Even if we stretch the milestone interval to 5,000 points, it will only take two and a half years on average.

In fact, it only took 18 years from 10,000 to 20,000. That might sound like a long time for the index to double (it’s only a 4% average return during that time), but that period includes the massive dot-com market collapse of 2000-2002, as well as the Great Recession of 2008-2009.

Here is a calendar breakdown of Dow Jones milestones:

As you can see, every milestone from Dow 3,000 through Dow 20,000 has occurred since the 1990’s. Dow 1,000 — now that was a milestone… it took 76 years from the index’s creation in 1896 for it to pierce the 1,000 level!

Also of note is how the Dow itself has become less and less relevant over time for investors. Most of us use the S&P 500 index since it represents more broadly diversified group of public companies, versus just 30 for the Dow. This is also because the S&P 500 is value-weighted, meaning that a company worth $10 billion comprised twice as much of the index as a $5 billion company.

The Dow, on the other hand, is share price-weighted. So while Bank of America (market value $235 billion) is ~2.5 times larger than Goldman Sachs (market value ~$95 billion), it actually makes up far less of the Dow’s composition than Goldman does. In fact, BofA’s share price is only 1/10th that of Goldman, so a $1 increase in GS stock (which is a gain of 0.4%) adds the same amount of points to the Dow as a $1 increase in BofA stock (a gain of 4%) does. It’s really a bizarre methodology.

Despite all of that, I’m glad we are getting 20K out of the way so we can stop hearing about it. That is, of course, until we hit Dow 25K, which history suggests is most likely to happen in just a few years.

 

Keeping Perspective: S&P 500 Corrections Since 2010

Has January 2016 been rough for stock market investors? Absolutely. One of the most important things to do, in my view, is to keep perspective and not make swift, emotional changes during times like these. With the help of the media, many investors see this kind of drop in such a short time (10% in a few weeks) and immediately think back to 2008. That financial crisis was the worst recession in 80 years. It is not a common occurrence. What is common are regular market corrections triggered by some macroeconomic event that are characterized by stock prices reacting far worse than underlying economic and corporate performance would indicate is rational. That is very likely what we are seeing right now. In fact, it might surprise people that we have actually witnessed many such events just since 2010.

SPX-drops-2010-2016

For long-term investors (time horizon of 3-5 years or more), these are almost always opportunities to buy rather than sell.

Market Volatility Is Back, And That’s Okay

You might be freaking out now that the U.S. stock market has dropped more than 8% during the first two weeks of 2016. With only nine trading days under our belt (including today) it has been a rough start to the new year. It has not helped our mental conditioning that from 2011 to 2015 we had a four-year stretch of no market corrections. Over the last six months we have now seen drops of 10% or more on two separate occasions. It also does not help that the national news typically only covers the stock market on days when the Dow drops 300 or 400 points, rather than giving equal time when it rebounds.

All of this is going to be okay. The shift from human to electronic trading has allowed computers to take over the process, which means much faster transacting. The result is that moves up and down now happen much more quickly. Market shifts that once took week or months can now come and go in a matter of minutes or hours. A 10% market correction might have taken three months a couple decades ago but now can take three days.

The ever-changing global economy also contributes to the volatility. We never heard much about China twenty years ago but now our financial markets can react violently to swift declines in Chinese stocks, even when their impact on American companies is minimal. As the United States matures and other countries grow faster and contribute a higher portion of global economic output, we become less shielded from international markets and therefore we will feel more ripple waves. And that’s okay.

Advances in technology more generally have also had consequences for those of us who are investing for our futures. Information can now be transferred across the globe in a matter of milliseconds. While that is great for a level playing field and means we can research our investments more quickly, easily, and cheaply than ever before, it also means that there is more to react to. More information and quicker dissemination of that information has its drawbacks; namely volatility. Engineers are now even programming computers to automatically place buy and sell trades based on information delivered online. So not only do we get information faster, but we can act on in it much faster too.

And then there are new financial products being created all of the time. More ways to “play” means more money flowing in different directions, which also increases volatility of the underlying prices for assets. As the great new movie “The Big Short” conveys so well, financial derivatives allow more money to be wagered on various outcomes than ever before. As the analogy goes, you used to be the only one who could buy insurance on your own house or car, but now an unlimited number of people can do so. Imagine how volatile the price of insurance will be when it trades daily and anyone can buy it on practically anything.

By now you are probably thinking that I have changed my mind in a few paragraphs and everything will not be okay. Nope. The saving grace is that business profitability does not swing nearly as much as asset prices do. And over the long-term asset prices are going to track the underlying fundamentals of a business. As long as we are willing to not panic and sell when things turn south for a little while, the near-term price gyrations should not matter. And no matter how hard it is to accept this fact and not panic, that is what investing requires. I try to do the best job I can reinforcing this with my clients, but it is a tough job. Emotional reactions are natural and difficult to ignore.

My focus right now is on fourth quarter earnings reports and 2016 commentaries which are getting under way. Doing so will allow investors to separate what is going on daily in terms of asset prices and how the underlying fundamentals of companies look. After all, five years from now stock prices will reflect underlying earnings more than anything else. Five days or five weeks from now they can reflect anything at all.

PS: Some people may argue with that last point. After all, if markets get wacky five years from today what is to say that the underlying profits of the company will matter? That is a fair statement, to some extent. I think it is important to point out that history has shown that stock prices, while volatile, do not have an unlimited range of outcomes. The S&P 500 has traded as low as 7-8 times earnings during periods of double-digit interest rates and as high as 25-30 times earnings during bubbles. But it has never traded for 3 times earnings or 100 times earnings.

Why is this important? Let’s say you buy a $100 stock today that trades for 10 times earnings and pays a 5% annual dividend. Your underlying investment thesis is that it will grow earnings per share by 10% annually for the next five years and continue to pay the dividend, which will be increased at the same rate as the underlying earnings grow.

If your fundamental analysis of the company turns out to be accurate, and you do not sell the stock (even during times of market panic), five years from now you will have collected more than $30 per share in dividends and the company’s earnings will have grown from $10 to $16 per share. Assuming this plays out, what is the worst case scenario in terms of investment return? Even if the stock trades at only 7 times earnings, the stock will still trade at $112 per share. Add in the $30 of dividends you collected and your total return would be more than 40% over a five-year period, or about 8% annually.

Simply put, you are not going to lose money on that investment, as long as your thesis about earnings and dividends is right. This is important because we could not say the same thing if we only look out five weeks or five months into the future. If the stock drops to 7 times earnings in the short-term you would lose 30% on paper even if the company’s fundamentals were on track. As long as you do not overpay for something, being right on the fundamentals and holding for the long-term becomes a winning proposition. That is why I spend the bulk of my time researching companies and hammering home the long-term nature of my investments.

This Market Correction In Perspective

One of my jobs as a financial manager for individuals and families is to put things into perspective, especially during times of short-term market distress, which can be quite stressful for the average person. In recent years I have tried to regularly remind my clients that normal stock market corrections of 10% or more occur about every year or so over the long term. Since we had not seen one since 2011, it had been four years since investors felt a near-term shock to their portfolios, which made being prepared for the next one especially helpful.

Given how much day-to-day stock market activity is computerized these days, one thing that is different now is that market moves happen more faster than they used to. What previously had taken weeks and months to take shape now can come and go in a matter of days. As I write this, the S&P 500 index is trading at 1,912, which is 10.4% below the all-time high made back in May. Amazingly, 8.8% of that decline has come in the last 4 trading days.

So what is important to keep in mind as computers send the market into a new world of volatility? Keep things in perspective. This  can often most easily be accomplished with graphics, so below I present three charts of the S&P 500 index:

Here is a year-to-date chart for 2015 which shows the current, sharp 10% decline:

SPX-YTD

 

Granted, that might look and feel kind of scary on its own.

Now, to see how far we have come and how much we have declined on relative terms, here is a 5-year chart:

SPX-5yr

I would guess that this second chart is far less scary to most people. It shows the market having more than doubled over a five-year period, includes the last major correction in the market (August 2011), and the most recent period appears to be no more than a standard, run-of-the-mill correction in stocks.

The last chart might be the most interesting, as it goes back 10 years. I included this one because it includes the last market peak before the “Great Recession” decline of 2008:

SPX-10yr

 

Even after the last week of declines, the U.S. stock market is still considerably above the peak it reached in 2007, just before the second largest economic collapse in United States history.

None of these charts can predict how the market will fare over the coming days, weeks, or months. Hopefully it does put the last decade in perspective and show that what we are experiencing right now, while not fun, is neither out of the ordinary, nor overly disconcerting. If you are retired, the plan you have in place with your financial manager is likely unchanged, as it should have incorporated the likelihood (or certainty, more precisely) of normal, periodic market declines. If you are still in the “work and save” phase of your career, times like these are a great time to add to your investment portfolio, as great companies are on sale.

Bargains Are Everywhere For Long-Term Investors, Even With S&P 500 Losses Contained Thus Far

Based solely on the number of new stocks I am finding to be priced at bargain levels, one would think the U.S. stock market has broken its years-long streak of avoiding a 10% correction. My potential buy list of stocks has not been this full in a long time, even though the S&P 500 (trading at 2,050 right now) has only dropped 4% from its all-time high. The reason is that as the current bull market continues to age, it is being led by fewer and fewer companies. Take out some high fliers like Amazon (AMZN) and Netflix (NFLX) and the underlying performance of the market overall has been pretty weak this year, and this is causing individual stock pickers to have ample choices when allocating fresh investment capital.

Take Disney (DIS), as an example. Down $6 today alone, the stock now fetches $100 per share, versus the $122 new high it reached on August 4th, just 16 days ago. For a blue chip company like Disney, which was a market darling just weeks ago, to be down 18% from its high is pretty remarkable. These are the kinds of moves we typically see when the market indices are really taking it on the chin.

It is impossible to know if the high-fliers are going to keep the S&P 500 fairly buoyant, or if we really will see a normal correction in the market (which would have to take stock prices materially lower from here), but as a long-term investor I do not especially care either way. I tell my clients that I invest in companies with every intention of holding them for at least five years. There are certainly times when I sell before that, but when you are searching for contrarian bargain opportunities you want to have time on your side since investors’ daily emotions are so unpredictable and oftentimes irrational. So when I find great investment opportunities, as I am more and more these days, I do not hesitate to start accumulating shares, even though the market is overdue for a correction and only down 4% from its high. If my investment thesis is correct, and I am willing to hold the stock for five years, the short-term noise becomes irrelevant.

As you consider whether to add fresh money to your investment accounts (and when), keep that in mind. Buying a good company at a great price usually pays off very well for long-term investors, in any market environment. Assuming that environment is similar to today when I write my next quarterly client letter in early October, I am likely to encourage my long-term investor clients who are still regularly adding cash to their accounts to prepare a plan of attack. That might mean putting some money to work now and leaving some on the sidelines in case we get a bigger market drop, but at the very least I think we should be shaping our plans around what we are seeing out there right now. And I would characterize the market today as getting very interesting on a stock specific level, provided one has patience and is focused on company fundamentals and not day-to-day market noise.

Full Disclosure: Long AMZN, DIS, and NFLX at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time.