(Stock buyback story updated for Coca-Cola Enterprises $1 billion stock buyback)

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The stock buyback surge in the S&P 500 Index has been the No. 1 sign of C-suite executives across the U.S. being willing to get back to the business of spending cash hoarded during 2009.

Chart: Growth, year by year, in sector buyback activity.

It's not just in the S&P 500 universe, though, but the equity markets as a whole that are showing a renewed level of buyback activity. In fact, the biggest 2010 stock buybacks -- measured as a percentage of shares outstanding -- have been made outside the S&P 500 group of stocks.

Only one S&P 500 company, Texas Instruments ( TXN) announced a buyback program for more than 20% of its shares.


Outside the S&P 500, three of the 10 biggest stock buyback programs represented at least 20% of outstanding shares. A fourth company within the Top 10 announced a buyback program just below the 20% threshold, at 19.6% of outstanding shares. Most importantly, three of the four biggest stock buybacks outside the S&P 500 universe have all been announced within the past month.

As the chart above, provided by market research firm Birinyi Associates details, it's not just individual stocks but some sectors that have returned in a big way to the business of stock buybacks.

"Last year was a low point and what I think we are seeing is that companies are willing to deploy capital again and think the U.S. is returning to a normal business cycle," said Robert Leiphart, analyst at Birinyi Associates.

U.S. companies have announced $55.9 billion in stock buybacks since June, according to Birinyi data. There was only $125 billion in buyback activity in all of 2009. Through the first three quarters of the year, U.S. companies have announced $258 billion in buybacks, compared with $52 billion in the first three quarters of 2009, according to Birinyi data.

The action isn't slowing down either, with Coca-Cola Enterprises ( CCE) announcing on Oct. 14 that it will buyback up to $1 billion of its shares in the next 18 months, and starting the the fourth quarter of 2010. Coca-Cola Enterprises recently sold its North American operations to Coca-Cola Co. for $3.4 billion and went public as a separate entity. It has a $12 billion market cap. The company said it will use cash and incremental debt to finance the repurchase program. The $1 billion Coca-Cola Enterprises stock buyback program would rank it among the Top 10 repurchase authorizations in 2010 based on dollar value and percentage of outstanding shares -- roughly 12%.

Companies are coming back, but still nowhere near 2005 to 2008 levels of stock buyback activity. "I'm surprised activity has increased as much as it has," the Birinyi analyst said, noting that a year ago all you could read about was the doomsday double dip bear market bounce, and the wheels of financing were halted. "To see where we are today in such a small amount of time, to see companies in the market repurchasing stock in large programs surprised me," Leiphart said.

These companies may not be in competition with the S&P 500 in terms of investor shelf space or dollar value of buyback programs, but they are buying back blocks of shares to a greater extent than the buyback kings of the S&P 500. What follows is a ranking of the Top 10 stock buybacks announced so far in 2010 - in ascending order of percentage of shares outstanding represented.

If you liked this article you might like

Finding Bullish and Bearish Stock Reversals

Equifax CEO and Board Are Pretty Cozy

Market Recon: The Reflation Trade Still Lives, but Buckle Your Chinstrap

Market Recon: Understand How Interest Rates Affect You, and You Will Survive

Market Recon: Watch Out for Consumer Discretionary Froth