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March 31, 2020 | Good Outcome From Pandemic Shock: Buybacks have Slowed Dramatically

Danielle Park

Portfolio Manager and President of Venable Park Investment Counsel ( Ms Park is a financial analyst, attorney, finance author and regular guest on North American media. She is also the author of the best-selling myth-busting book "Juggling Dynamite: An insider's wisdom on money management, markets and wealth that lasts," and a popular daily financial blog:

Corporations buying back their own shares was the largest source of equity demand manufactured in the 2009 to 2019 expansion cycle. Borrowing funds to do so was the go-to genius financial gimmick to boost prices and earnings per share.

It is also one of the main reasons that publicly traded corporations are today at record indebtedness and so ill-prepared for the economic shock at hand.  Many are already, hat in hand, asking for taxpayer-funded bailouts, and taxpayers are rightly demanding that a ban on buybacks be part of any aid given.

In a recent Fox interview, President Trump explained that the US $2.2 trillion emergency funding package “could go up further because we’re going to help Boeing and we’re going to help the airlines.”  He also added that there are many companies that were “in great shape 3 weeks ago all of a sudden they’re, you know, struggling for survival. These are companies that never thought about survival.”

It is critical to understand that companies who did not think about survival and piled on record debt to waste billions on share buybacks were not “in great shape 3 weeks ago” and their managers should be fired, not rewarded with bailouts and bonuses.

As I have explained in the past, we have seen this destructive behaviour increasingly over the past 38 years.  Buybacks were appropriately banned as illegal market manipulation for 50 years before 1982.  Since then, companies have repeatedly magnified market swings and vaporized capital by buying back most near cycle tops and then least near cycle bottoms (when prices are most attractive). We are now seeing the enormous downside of this practice once more, as noted by Goldman Sachs this week:

The Goldman analysts also warn investors of another headwind for equities going forward: greatly reduced corporate share buybacks. They point out that nearly 50 U.S. corporations have suspended existing share repurchase authorizations in recent weeks, “representing $190 billion in buybacks, or nearly 25% of the 2019 total.”

Goldman also notes that big rebound days are typical of bear markets, offering the chart below of the six 9 to 19% bounces in the S&P 500 during its 50% decline during the 2008-09 bear market.













Since so many companies, households, pensions, hedge funds, private equity and other investment funds came into this downturn with tons of leverage and low net cash, they are all scrambling to raise it now.  So long as this continues, ‘sell the bounce’ is likely to be a better call than ‘buy the dip’.

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March 31st, 2020

Posted In: Juggling Dynamite

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