Corporate titans such as Apple and Walmart are under attack for buying back billions of dollars in stock while supposedly skimping on investment, but evidently the critics have it all wrong: The companies that buy back the most stock also invest the most in the future.
The 100 companies in the MSCI USA index that have bought back the most stock have also boosted capital investment by 45% in the past year, said Andrea Cicione, head of strategy at the global investment advisory firm TS Lombard.
By comparison, the 620 companies in the index as a whole have increased investment by an average of just 10% a year, his research has found.
“The companies engaging in the most buybacks are the ones doing the most investment,” Cicione said in an interview.
Apple announced plans last spring to buy back $100 billion in stock, but it also invested almost $17 billion in 2018 and it plans to invest $14 billion in 2019. And no wonder. The company is trying to prepare for a future in which it’s no longer so reliant on the iPhone.
Walmart, for its part, said last year it would buy back $20 billion in stock. Yet the company has invested at least $10 billion annually for the past three years in an effort to meet head-on competition from Amazon
. The nation’s largest retailer has to invest more in new technologies and e-commerce or risk falling behind.
How are companies walking and chewing gum at the same time?
The biggest corporate tax cuts under President Trump in 31 years certainly helped, Cicione said, but he pointed out the surge in stock buybacks preceded them.
Cicione said the largest and most successful American companies have managed to boost what is known as free cash flow, the difference between what a company receives and pays in cash, even faster over the past few years due to rising sales and sound management. That’s allowed them to give money back to shareholders and to increase investment.
Critics don’t see it that way. They contend the boom in stock buybacks over the past few years have come at the expense of workers and the broader economy.
Earlier this month Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said they would offer a proposal to sharply restrict stock buybacks unless companies invest more, especially in worker pay and benefits. Other Democratic candidates have joined in, as has Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.
Even on that front, however, companies are spending more.
Walmart has raised its minimum hourly wage three times since 2015 to $11 an hour, largely because of low unemployment and tougher competition for workers. Many other companies have gone even further, raising their lowest pay scale to $15 an hour.
What’s more, hourly wages and total compensation for all American workers are growing more than 3% a year — the fastest rate in a decade.
Restrictions on buybacks are unlikely to push companies to increase investment in equipment or workers, Cicione said. Companies would have done so already if they thought it would boost their bottom line.
If companies continue to generate huge amounts of extra cash, he said, they’ll simply shift from buying back stock to giving shareholders bigger annual dividends or special onetime dividends. Higher dividends don’t get the same bad press and mostly benefit common shareholders, including retirement plans for millions of Americans.
“If companies generate so much cash, they will find other ways to return it to shareholders,” he said.