Yesterday, I have posted a quite unusual (for my normal arguments) defense of the shares buybacks. Normally, as the readers of this blog know, I see buybacks as a net negative to organic investment. However, that view needs to be anchored to the economic conditions prevailing on the ground. In other words, buybacks are net negative for investment and organic economic growth, unless buybacks are companies' rational responses to specific economic and policy conditions.
With this in mind, here are my thoughts on the subject of buybacks that have accelerated in recent years:
The proposition that shares buybacks are ‘starving’ (aka slowing) the economy is false. And it is false for a number of reasons, listed below:
Reason 1: Stock buybacks can ONLY slow down economic growth in the conditions when new investment by firms can generate higher economic value added than other uses of funds in the economy (e.g. investment by other agents, than the firm, or increasing aggregate demand by investors recycling gains from buybacks into general consumption, etc). Currently, this does not appear to be the case. In fact, firms are hesitant to invest in the economy even when we control for buybacks. Thus, buybacks are similar to dividends: payouts of dividends and higher buybacks rates may signal lack of profitable investment opportunities for the firms.
Reason 2: Stock buybacks can slow down economic growth if they increase cost of capital for the firms. With equity capital (shares) being made superficially more expensive than debt (QE, tax preferences, demographic shifts in clientele reasons, etc), this is not the case. equity capital is currently more expensive than debt as a funding source for new investment for listed companies. While this situation may reverse in time (which it did only on very rare occasions in the past), companies today can borrow cheaply to retire expensive equity. This might not make sense from the economy point of view (rising degree of financial leverage, increasing risk of destabilising increases in debt carry costs, etc), it might make sense from the company and management point of view.
Reason 3: Stock buybacks can harm economic growth if they reduce returns on productivity (theory of labour productivity being unrewarded via slow wages growth). This too is not the case, because labour productivity and TFP have been collapsing since prior to the increases in shares buybacks. I wrote enough about this on this blog before in the context of the twin secular stagnations theses.
So what does the story of skyrocketing shares buybacks really tell us? The reality, consistent with Reasons 1-3 above, is that stock buybacks are a SYMPTOM of the disease, not the disease itself. Shares buybacks are driven by secular stagnation: more specifically, primarily by supply-side secular stagnation (S-SSS), and are second-order related to demand-side secular stagnation (D-SSS). How?
S-SSS implies lack of profitable investment opportunities for short and medium-term investments by the firms. With falling TFP & labour productivity, and with demographically-induced slowdown in demand, this is patently so. S-SSS also implies the need for protracted QE and other distortions in capital funding costs that disincentivise equity capital relative to debt funding channels.
D-SSS implies that with demographic, structural shifts in economic activity across generations, etc, aggregate demand side of the economy is getting pressured. Which means, again, 2nd order effects, adverse pressure on supply side.
So shares buybacks are NOT a disaster, nor a disease. The disease is the structure of the economy, with
- Technological & human capital productivity and innovation stalling,
- Adverse demographics undermining future economic capacity,
- Infrastructure investments yielding lower potential growth uplifts,
- Policies (monetary & fiscal) stuck in the 20th century extremes,
- Increasing concentration, monopolisation & oligopolization of the economy and the markets resulting in reduced entrepreneurial activity.
Shares buybacks & resulting wealth inequality or concentration are not orthogonal sets to the political & policy mismanagement that marks the last 25 years of our (Western) history. They are DIRECT outcome of these.
So, go ahead, political punks. Make the markets day. Shut down shares buybacks, so you can keep gerrymandering the economy, manipulating the markets, & bend the society to your desired ends. The longer you do this, the more you do this, the tighter is the lid on the pressure cooker. The more spectacular the blowout to follow.