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Are Share Buybacks Cannibalizing Companies?

Apple repurchased $36 billion shares in the company's latest fiscal year.Apple repurchased $36 billion shares in the company's latest fiscal year.
Apple repurchased $36 billion shares in the company's latest fiscal year.Photograph by David Paul Morris — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Are stock repurchases harming American corporations?

Reuters yesterday posted a investigative piece under the less-than-neutral logo “The Cannibalized Company” showing just how much buybacks have grown in recent years. Its study of more than 3,000 companies found 60% have bought back shares since 2010, and in fiscal 2014 their spending on buybacks and dividends surpassed their combined net income.

Among the 1900 firms in the study that have bought back shares since 2010, buybacks and dividends were equal to 113% of their total capital spending, compared with 60% in 2000 and 38% in 1990.

Stock repurchases, of course, are just one way companies return cash to shareholders. Unlike the headline writers at Reuters, we don’t automatically assume companies have better uses for that money than shareholders do. But the rise in buybacks since 2010 is striking, especially at a time when technology is transforming the fundamentals of American corporations and making a strong case for investment.

The change may be partly driven by corporate compensation schemes tied to stock price. But it’s also one of the legacies of the Fed’s seven years of zero interest rates. Desperate for yield, activist investors have been turning up the heat on companies, prioritizing short-term returns over investment in growth. No wonder start-ups are so leery of the public markets these days.

Separately, the Paris attacks seem to be having little effect on the stock market, but they are affecting some company’s investment policies, and they are making the GOP candidates even more strident on immigration.

 

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