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Successful Buybacks Need Clear Message


The following commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet's guest contributor program, which is separate from the company's news coverage.

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Amid continued concerns about the unemployment rate and torpid U.S. economy, many of the nation's largest corporations have been quietly stockpiling huge cash reserves, too uneasy about future market conditions to hire new employees or even invest in their own operations.

Analysts say second-quarter earnings reports for Dow Jones Industrial companies reveal that cash and short-term investments at 24 of the 30 companies has grown to $256 billion, up 18% from one year ago. Among companies with larger-than-normal cash reserves are Caterpillar (CAT) (up threefold); Microsoft (MSFT) (up 43%); Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) (up 57%); and Coca Cola (COKE) (up 38%). Apple (AAPL), it is worth noting, reported a cash reserve of $75.876 billion, more than the U.S. government.

In recent months, with stock prices under pressure and cash on hand, companies such as AOL (AOL) and News Corporation (NWS) announced that they will use those cash reserves to buy back their own stocks. They join a long list of others that have announced stock repurchase programs, including giants such as Best Buy (BBY), Disney (DIS), Fluor (FLR), Home Depot (HD), Pfizer (PFE) and Visa (V). And the list goes on.

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Hoarding cash seems like sound fiscal policy to many, given the 2008-09 financial crisis and credit crunch still casting a pall in the boardrooms and offices of corporate America. Long-simmering worries over the seemingly intractable debt crisis in Europe and continued economic turmoil and market volatility here at home, were naturally exacerbated by Standard and Poor's decision to downgrade the U.S. government's AAA credit rating and also by the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank's recent dreary economic forecast.

While many analysts see stock-repurchase programs as a boon to share price, the strategy also has harsh detractors. When the stakes are as high as they are in this market, any company that is likely to find itself ready to authorize a share repurchase must have in place a communications plan to ensure its ultimate success in creating share value. And, with corporate credibility at or near all-time lows and shareholders willing to believe the worst until proven wrong, companies must seize the narrative before analysts and talking heads write it for them.

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