Corporate share repurchases have turned out to be a great mechanism for converting Federal Reserve easing into higher consumer spending. Just allow public companies to borrow really cheaply and one of the things they do with the resulting found money is repurchase their stock. This pushes up equity prices, making investors feel richer and more willing to splurge on the kinds of frivolous stuff (new cars, big houses, extravagant vacations) that produce rising GDP numbers.
For politicians and their bureaucrats this is a win-win. But for the rest of us it’s not, since the debts corporations take on to buy their own stock at market peaks tend to hobble them going forward, leading eventually to bigger share price declines than would otherwise be the case.
The ultimate loser? The only people traditionally willing to buy in after corporations are finished overpaying for their stock: Retail investors, of course.
Let’s see how it’s playing out this time.
First, corporations spent several years elevating stock prices with share repurchases. Note the near perfect correlation between the two lines:
Now they’re scaling back their purchases:
Large companies are repurchasing their shares at the slowest pace in five years, as record U.S. stock indexes and an expanding economy propel more money out of flush corporate coffers into capital spending and mergers.
Companies in the S&P 500 are on pace to spend $500 billion this year on share buybacks, or about $125 billion a quarter, according to data from INTL FCStone. That is the least since 2012 and down from a quarterly average of $142 billion between 2014 and 2016.
Buyback activity among top-rated nonfinancial debt issuers, many of which have regularly borrowed money to finance share repurchases, declined for the third straight quarter in the July-to-September period, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Meanwhile, mergers and acquisitions among that group of companies had their biggest quarter of the year, analysts at the bank said.
Factors including high stock price, historically high share valuations and uncertainty over the future shape of the tax code mean that “companies may be less likely to favor buybacks over other uses of cash in 2018,” analysts at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. said in a report this week.
And – here’s the really sad part – individual investors are taking up the slack:
Sonders said she’s anecdotally seeing signs of more individuals putting money to work in the stock market in the last several months, after years of skepticism and concerns about “every variety of doom and gloom.”
She says she is getting fewer investors asking about bubbles or about what’s the next shoe to drop.
“I think it’s finally starting to suck people in … emotionally, and actually it’s hard to judge why now all of a sudden, but maybe it’s because of how persistent the move has been with so little volatility on the upside and on the downside,” Sonders said. “This year has been different. This kind of year pulls people in.”
Retail brokers have been reporting an influx of accounts. Charles Schwab, in its earnings release, said clients opened more than 100,000 new brokerage accounts a month in the third quarter, making for a record-breaking 10-month streak of new accounts topping 100,000. Its rival, TD Ameritrade, said on its earnings call last month that new accounts, asset inflows and other indicators are at the highest since the financial crisis.
What’s frustrating about this is the repeating pattern of government creating conditions in which smart money (that is, the guys who donate big to political campaigns) is allowed to get in early, make huge profits, and then hand the bag to regular people who aren’t connected or sophisticated enough to see what’s happening. The rich, who are or will soon be shorting the hell out of this market, get richer and the rest see their hopes for a decent (or any) retirement dashed one more time.
And the political class wonders why voters don’t like them anymore.