The recent pullback in the stock market brings a silver lining for some companies.
Those firms that have announced new or extended stock buyback programs can now retire more shares for a fixed dollar amount. And if the market slumps deeper in coming weeks and months, these buyback programs will deliver an even better bang for their buck.
I recently wrote about the stunning $455 billion in stock that has been reacquired by firms over the past four quarters, noting that the trend isn't just a passing fad. In fact, the past two months of buyback announcements signal that the current quarter will be another sizzler.
A month ago, I took note of roughly $20 billion worth of buyback plans announced in July (which only partially reflects the full amount of buybacks that month) and I've tallied the buyback programs announced in August (among companies buying at least $400 million), and this new group accounts for an impressive $29 billion in share buybacks.
We can glean a few clear trends from these share buybackers:The majority of these plans are simply new plans to replace old plans that have now been completed, meaning these companies buy back their shares on a regular basis. Many of these stocks are valued right near the market multiple of 15 to 16 times projected earnings. Many of these stocks offer up a decent dividend as well, boosting their total cash return to shareholders. Most of these buyback programs represent a meaningful amount of the current share count. (Both VMWare's (NYSE: VMW) and Emerson Electric's (NYSE: EMR) buyback programs are not really meaningful as they are only likely large enough to offset stock option grants). Most of these stocks are near their 52-week highs, extending the theme of the current era that companies no longer wait for their stock to fall out of bed before buying back stock. Nor do any of these stocks trade below tangible book value, which also had historically served as a key litmus test of buyback efficacy.
Still, the longer-term buyback programs for some of these firms have surely been impressive. Take toy maker Hasbro (NYSE: HAS) as an example. The company's new $500 million share buyback (which would reduce the share count by 11% at current prices) is reasonably impressive -- until you look at what Hasbro has already been doing for nearly a decade.
Hasbro's Shrinking Share Count (millions)
By the end of 2013, Hasbro's share count will likely have fallen by 37% since 2005. And chances are, Hasbro will simply announce another buyback when this current plan is done.
Common sense has returned, and Hasbro now sports a much larger market value than Zynga. Remember that the next time you see an unproven company quickly leapfrog past a proven competitor like that. Reality eventually sets in.
Auto parts maker Visteon (NYSE: VC) clearly embodies the new thinking about share buybacks. The company announced plans last month to sell its $1.5 billion stake in a joint venture with a Chinese partner. Visteon could have looked to pay down debt or make an acquisition, or simply keep the ($1.2 billion after-tax) proceeds. Instead, almost all of the money will go toward a share buyback that might reduce shares outstanding by 25%.
Lastly, conservative investors may want to check out Renaissance Reinsurance (NYSE: RNR) which has been buying back shares for seven straight years, reducing the share count by 30% in that time. The newly announced buyback plan, which could absorb up to 13% of the additional share count, is a primary focus now. But when share buybacks are no longer the focus, then robust dividend growth will likely be the norm as this company can afford to support a $4.50 a share dividend (equating to a 5% yield) while still keeping the payout ratio below 50%.
Risks to Consider: Large buybacks often signal tepid organic growth prospects, so if investors continue to gravitate toward aggressive growth stocks, these shares may underperform.
Action to Take --> Most of these stocks appear reasonable valued, with forward earnings multiples in the mid-teens. Yet steady buybacks promise to tangibly boost earnings per share in coming years, pushing these stocks deeper into value territory.
P.S. -- Because buying back vast amounts of stock boosts the value of the remaining shares, it's a strategy used by world-beating companies focused on shareholder value -- companies whose stock is solid enough to buy, forget and hold "forever." My colleague Elliott Gue and his staff recently spent six months on $1.3 million worth of research to find the best of these "Forever Stocks." To learn more about these stocks, including some of their names and ticker symbols, click here.