One of the most popular ways a company can use its cash is through a stock buyback. Over the past decade, companies in the S&P 500 index have repurchased $5 trillion worth of their own shares to boost shareholder value. Because of this significant activity, investors need to know the basics of stock buybacks and how they work to feel confident in making investment decisions.
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What Is A Stock Buyback?
A stock buyback, also known as a share repurchase, is when a company buys a portion of its previously issued stock, reducing the total number of outstanding shares on the market. Because there are fewer total shares on the market after the buyback, each share owned by investors represents a greater portion of company ownership.
How Do Companies Buy Back Stock?
Companies can repurchase stock from investors through the open market or a tender offer.
A company may buy back shares on the open market at the current market price, just like a regular investor would. These stock purchases are conducted with the company’s brokers.
A company may also buy back shares through a tender offer. One type of tender offer, the fixed-price offer, occurs when a company proposes buying back shares from investors at a fixed price on a specific date. This process usually values the shares at a higher price than the current price per share on the open market, providing an extra benefit to shareholders who agree to sell back the shares.
Another type of tender offer, the dutch auction offer, will specify to investors the number of shares the company hopes to repurchase and a price range. Shareholders can then counter with their own proposals, which would include the number of shares they’re willing to give up and the price they’re asking. When the company has all of the shareholders’ offers, it decides the right mix to buy to keep its costs as low as possible.
Why Do Companies Buy Back Stock?
Stock buybacks are one of several things a company can do with the cash it has in its coffers, including paying the money out to shareholders as a dividend, reinvesting in business operations, acquiring another company, and paying off debt. There are several reasons why a company chooses to buy back its stock rather than some of these other options.
1. Increases Stock Value
One of the most common reasons a company might conduct a share buyback is to increase the value of the stock, especially if the company considers its shares undervalued. By reducing the supply of shares on the market, the stock price will theoretically go up as long as the demand for the stock remains the same. The rising stock price benefits existing shareholders.
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2. Puts Money Into Shareholders’ Hands
A company’s stock buyback program can be used as an alternative to dividend payments to return cash to shareholders, specifically those investors who choose to sell back their shares to the company. With dividend payments, companies usually pay them regularly to all shareholders, so investors may not like it if a company reduces or suspends a dividend. Stock buybacks, in contrast, are conducted on a more flexible basis that may benefit the company because investors do not rely on the payments.
3. Takes advantage of tax benefits
Many investors prefer that companies use excess cash to repurchase stock rather than pay out dividends because buybacks have fewer direct tax implications. With dividends, investors must pay taxes on the payout. But with stock buybacks, investors benefit from rising share prices but do not have to pay a tax on this benefit until they sell the stocks. And even when they sell the stock, they usually pay a lower capital gains tax rate.
4. Offsets dilution from stock options
Companies will often offer employee stock options as a part of compensation packages to their employees. When these employees exercise their stock, the number of shares outstanding increases. To maintain an ideal number of outstanding shares after employees exercise their options, a company may buy back shares from the market.
5. Improves financial ratios
Another way stock buybacks attract more investors is by making the company’s financial ratios look much more attractive. Because the repurchases decrease assets on the balance sheet and reduce the number of outstanding shares, it can make financial ratios like earnings per share (EPS), the price-to-earnings ratio (PE Ratio), and return on equity (ROE) look more attractive to investors.
What Happens to Repurchased Stock?
When a company repurchases stock, the shares will either be listed as treasury stock or the shares will be retired.
Treasury stocks are the shares repurchased by the issuing company, reducing the number of outstanding shares on the open market. The treasury stock remains on its balance sheet, though it reduces the total shareholder equity. Shares that are listed as treasury stock are no longer included in EPS calculations, do not receive dividends, and are not part of the shareholder voting process. However, the treasury stock is still considered issued and, therefore, can be reissued by the company through stock dividends, employee compensation, or capital raising.
In contrast, retired shares are canceled and cannot be reissued by the company.
The Pros and Cons of a Stock Buyback for Investors
When a company announces a stock buyback, investors may wonder what it means for their investment. Stock buybacks have pros and cons worth considering depending on the company’s underlying reasoning for the share repurchase and the investor’s goal.
Pros of a Stock Buyback
Tender offer premium
Investors who accept the company’s tender offer could mean an opportunity to sell the stock at a greater value than the market price.
Increased total return
Investors who hold onto the stock after a buyback will likely see a higher share price since fewer outstanding shares are on the market. Plus, each share now represents a more significant portion of company ownership, which may mean an investor will see higher dividend payments over time. A higher stock price and increased dividend boosts an investor’s total return on investment.
As mentioned above, a stock buyback might also mean a lower overall tax burden for an investor, depending on how long the investor owned the stock. Money earned through a stock market buyback is taxed at the capital gains tax rate. If the company issued a dividend instead of buying back shares, the dividends would be taxed as regular income, typically at a higher rate.
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Cons of a Stock Buyback
Cash could be spent elsewhere
As mentioned above, when companies have cash, they can either reinvest in business operations, acquire a company, pay down debt, pay out a dividend, or buy back stock. Engaging in a share repurchase can starve the business of money needed in other areas, such as research and development or investment into new products and facilities. This hurts investors by boosting share price in the short term at the expense of the company’s long-term prospects.
Companies may sometimes perform a stock buyback when their stocks are overvalued. Like regular investors, companies want to buy the stock when the shares are valued at an attractive price. If the company buys at a high stock price, it could be a bad investment when the company could have spent the money elsewhere.
Benefits executives, not shareholders
Stock buybacks might also be a convenient tactic to benefit company executives, who are often compensated by way of stock options. Also, some executives earn bonuses for increasing key financial ratios like earnings per share, so buying back stock to improve those ratios benefits insiders and not all shareholders.
Like almost everything else to do with the stock market, the benefits and drawbacks of stock buybacks aren’t exactly straightforward. Investors need to ask themselves a few questions when analyzing the share repurchases of a company, like “why is the company conducting the buyback?” and “does the company have a history of delivering good returns?” Answering these questions can help investors decide whether a stock buyback is the best thing for a company.
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