If Corporate America isn't buying back its beaten down stock, should investors?
The equity markets have had a rough-and-tumble time in 2016, with companies, such as Apple (AAPL) - Get Report , losing more than 25% of their value in the past year. Yet, companies are not rushing to buy back their battered stocks.
A report, released this week by TrimTabs Investment Research, shows stock buyback program announcements totaled $261.5 billion so far this year through May 19, which is down 35% from the $399.4 billion reported during the same period a year ago.
"Not only has the volume declined, but the number of companies rolling out big repurchases has fallen sharply," said David Santschi, chief executive of TrimTabs. In the first five months of 2016, 23 companies have announced buybacks, which is down almost 50% from the 45 that had made such announcements during the same period in 2015.
Some experts see this as a red flag that management teams aren't confident about their companies' business prospects in the current economic climate. And if management teams are cautious about buying their battered stocks, then perhaps investors should be wary too.
"It's a sign of caution," said Zhiwei Ren, a managing director and portfolio manager at Penn Mutual Asset Management, which has about $20 billion in assets under management. "Usually a share buyback is a sign of confidence that they think they will have more cash flow and make more money in the coming years. But this kind of reduction is a sign of caution and conservativeness."
He sees the slowdown as an omen that we're nearing the end of the business cycle.
The companies announcing the biggest buybacks this year (as of the end of April) were Apple at $35 billion, Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC) - Get Report at $16.9 billion, Cisco Systems (CSCO) - Get Report at $15 billion and Gilead Sciences (GILD) - Get Report at $12 billion, according to Rob Leiphart, an analyst at Birinyi Associates Inc., a money management and research firm. Five others - Allergan (AGN) - Get Report , Comcast (CMCSA) - Get Report , 3M (MMM) - Get Report , Oracle Corp. (ORCL) - Get Report , and Schlumberger (SLB) - Get Report - each announced $10 billion share repurchase programs,
While Apple's $35 billion program sounds healthy, it's still far short of the $50 billion buyback it authorized during the same period in 2015, noted Santschi.
Generally, companies borrow money to fund buybacks. And in this current economy, where interest rates sit near historic lows, it would seem like a no-brainer for companies to repurchase beaten-down shares.
However, corporate debt has exploded in the last few years, and investors don't want companies piling on more leverage if the economy is heading south. Companies are no longer being rewarded for borrowing money to repurchase shares, said Ren.
"If you look at Apple, it has the largest share buyback in the world at the moment, but they're not doing well," said Ren. "But if you look at Amazon (AMZN) - Get Report , a lot of people have been critical of how much money they spend each quarter on capital spending - but they're rewarded in their share performance."
Leiphart sees the decline as a sign of "caution" rather than a red flag. "Yes, it is slowing," but this needs to be put into context, he said.
He noted that 2015 was one of the biggest years ever for buyback program announcements with authorizations of $831 billion: only 2007 was higher, with $878 billion in repurchase commitments. So, while 2016's programs are sharply below 2015's lofty levels, they'll still likely finish the year as the third or fourth highest year ever for buybacks, he said.
Santschi said he's not surprised by the pullback in buyback announcements this year.
He noted that real time income tax withholding data from the U.S. Treasury show growth slowing in the past year. "It's currently about half the rate it was a year ago," said Santschi. "And when economic activity slows down, companies tend to spend less money buying back stock."
Also, there's growing negative sentiment toward buybacks.
Americans have become disillusioned with the financial system and strategies, such as quantitative easing, that have benefited Wall Street more than Main Street. And some see buybacks as a short-term program aimed at propping up management's stock-based compensation instead of benefiting long-term shareholders.
"Part of Hillary Clinton's platform has been looking at corporate buybacks," said Santschi. He believes this disillusionment is what led to the popularity of outsiders in the presidential campaign. "That's why you have Bernie [Sanders] and Trump running for president and being very successful," he said. "It's because a lot of people think the system doesn't work for them."
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.