If you're puzzled why the U.S. stock market has risen so fast in a slow-growing economy, consider one of its star performers: DirecTV.
The Associated Press
NEW YORK — If you're puzzled why the U.S. stock market has risen so fast in a slow-growing economy, consider one of its star performers: DirecTV.
The satellite TV provider has done a great job slashing expenses and expanding abroad, and that has helped lift its earnings per share dramatically in five years. But don't be fooled. The main reason for the EPS gain has nothing to do with how well it runs its business. It's because it has engaged in a massive stock buyback program, halving the number of its shares in circulation by purchasing them from investors.
Spreading earnings over fewer shares translates into higher EPS — a lot higher in DirecTV's case. Instead of an 88 percent rise to $2.58, EPS nearly quadrupled to $5.22.
Companies have been spending big on buybacks since the 1990s. What's new is the way buybacks have exaggerated the health of many companies, suggesting through EPS that they are much better at generating profits than they actually are. The distortion is ironic. Critics say the obsessive focus on buybacks has led companies to put off replacing plant and equipment, funding research and development, and generally doing the kind of spending needed to produce rising EPS for the long run.
"It's boosted the stock market and flattered earnings, but it's very short term," says David Rosenberg, former chief economist at Merrill Lynch, now at money manager Gluskin Sheff. He calls buybacks a "sugar high."
Over the past five years, 216 companies in the S&P 500 are just like DirecTV: They are getting more of a boost in EPS from slashing share count than from running their underlying business, according to a study by consultancy Fortuna Advisors at the request of The Associated Press. The list of companies cuts across industries, and includes retailer Gap, supermarket chain Kohl's, railroad operator Norfolk Southern and drug distributor AmerisourceBergen.
The stocks of those four have more than tripled, on average, in the past five years.
Companies insist that their buybacks must be judged case by case.
"The vast majority of our shareholders are sophisticated investors who not only use EPS growth but other important measures to determine the success of our company," says Darris Gringeri, a spokesman for DirecTV.
But Fortuna CEO Gregory Milano says buybacks are a waste of money for most companies.
"It's game playing — a legitimate, legal form of manufacturing earnings growth," says Milano, author of several studies on the impact of buybacks. "A lot of people (focus on) earnings per share growth, but they don't adequately distinguish the quality of the earnings."
So powerful is the impact, it has turned what would have been basically flat or falling EPS into a gain at some companies over five years. That list includes Lockheed Martin, the military contractor, Cintas, the country's largest supplier of work uniforms, WellPoint, an insurer, and Dun and Bradstreet, a credit-rating firm.
It's not clear investors are worried, or even aware, how much buybacks are exaggerating the underlying strength of companies. On Friday, they pushed the Standard and Poor's 500 stock index to a record close, up 178 percent from a 12-year low in 2009.
"How much credit should a company get earning from share buybacks rather than organic growth?" asks Brian Rauscher, chief portfolio strategist at Robert W. Baird & Co, an investment company. "I think the quality of earnings has been much lower than what the headlines suggest."
And it could get worse.
Companies in the S&P 500 have earmarked $1 trillion for buybacks over the next several years. That's on top of $1.7 trillion they spent on them in the previous five years. The figure is staggering. It is enough money to cut a check worth $5,345 for every man, women and child in the country.