Stock Buybacks: Short-term Gain Over Long-term Value?

I noticed recently what might be another big ethics issue with corporate use of profits in the U.S. – stock buybacks. According to Federal Reserve data compiled by Goldman Sachs, over the past nine years, American corporations have used profits to buy some $3.8 trillion of their shares from owners.

I noted that in the 2nd quarter, Apple spent $17 billion on stock buybacks.

This use of funds, rather than for dividend payments, gets a share of corporate profits back to investors at capital gain, not income tax rates. By reducing the shares outstanding, it raises the price of shares remaining in the public market, thus adding booster fuel to rising equity market prices and enticing the diversion of money to such markets from other alternatives, such as investment in startups.

But the practice is not evenhanded in its distribution of benefits. Money spent on share buy-backs is not there for wage increases, R&D or factory expansion.

Corporate executives have been found to have sold five times as much stock in the eight days after the announcement of a buyback as they did on an average day.

Of course, one reason for executive preference for stock buybacks is that much of their total compensation comes not from salary, but from grants of options to buy company stock. The net value of the option is directly related to a rising market price for the shares. If share prices go up and up, executives cash out very nicely.

The preference for using stock options for compensation responds to a populist law passed under President Clinton which limits the amount of salary a corporation can deduct as a business expense on its taxes. Options are not considered an expense of the company.

The law could be repealed and executives could be paid cash only, as is done with wage earners.

Many investors also like buybacks. They have no intention of being long-term owners of the company. Any market move which gives them a quick profit on their investment has its attractions – a bird in hand is worth two in the bush. The world of owners of public companies these days is one of short-term “hookups,” trading and speculation, not marriages ‘til death do us part.’