Investors are fearing a recession, but the commitment by corporate managements to share repurchases is considered "a bullish signal" by Goldman Sachs.
As of Feb. 5 - the date the client note was published -- 75% of S&P 500 companies had reported fourth-quarter results. "Companies have generally expressed a continued commitment to buybacks, holding the view that market weakness is a reason to increase, rather than taper, their repurchases," Goldman Sachs analyst David Kostin wrote in the note.
For instance, United Technologies calls "the best M&A opportunity" to be buying back UTX stock. The Hartford, Conn.-based aerospace company plans to continue buybacks "'as long as we feel there's a significant discount between the intrinsic value of UTC and the share price," Kostin wrote. He believes the stock's buybacks account for "nearly 20% of its recent trading volume."
Plenty of companies have authorized repurchases recently to boost the already ample store of "dry powder" for buybacks in 2016, the note said. As of Feb. 4, S&P 500 buyback authorizations exceeded $60 billion this year -- putting "early 2016 on pace to be one of the fastest starts on record," the note said.
Gilead Sciences authorized $12 billion in buybacks, while 3M authorized $10 billion in buybacks are just two examples of companies boosting their repurchase activity this year. As well, General Electric and AIG have announced intentions to return cash to investors through a combination of dividends and share repurchases, targeting $26 billion and $25 billion, respectively, according to the Goldman note, while other companies like Apple still have plenty of capacity under exiting buyback programs.
To be sure, "corporate foresight is far from perfect," Kostin wrote, noting that 2007 was the largest year on record for share buybacks, but it was just before the financial crisis.
Goldman's basket of S&P 500 stocks with the largest buybacks and dividends in the trailing four quarters has "outperformed the S&P 500 during February in 19 of the last 21 years." (The basket is lagging the S&P 500 by 145 basis points this year.) The median trailing 12-month total yield for S&P 500 stocks is 4.9%, while Goldman's basket had a median yield of 10.6%.
Here are the 11 stocks with the biggest cash returns to shareholders across sectors, according to Goldman. We've paired the list with commentary from Jim Cramer, if the stock is owned by his Action Alerts PLUS Charitable Trust Portfolio.
Note: Buyback and dividend yields are currently based on the four calendar quarters ending September 2015.
Trailing 12-Month Yield: 13%
12-Month Buyback Yield: 10.9%
12-Month Dividend Yield: 2.2%
Xerox Corporation provides business process and document management solutions worldwide.
Xerox announced on Jan. 29, 2016 that it was splitting into two separately traded companies by the end of the year. One company will consist of its document technology; the other -- business process outsourcing -- will be a provider of services to government and various industries, such as health care and transportation, Bloomberg said.
The split is expected to deliver $2.4 billion in savings over the next three years across both companies, Xerox said in a press release.
Xerox said during its latest earnings conference call that it returned more than $1.6 billion to shareholders in 2015 -- $1.3 billion in share buybacks and $326 million in dividends.
Trailing 12-Month Yield: 13.2%
12-Month Buyback Yield: 11.9%
12-Month Dividend Yield: 1.2%
Marriott International, Inc. operates, franchises, and licenses hotels and timeshare properties worldwide. It operates through three segments: North American Full-Service, North American Limited-Service, and International.
On Nov. 16, 2015, the company agreed to acquire Starwood Hotels (another company on this list) for $12.2 billion. Marriott had temporarily suspended its share repurchase program in preparation of its Form S-4 with the Securities and Exchange Commission. As of Dec. 22, 2015, Marriott has since resumed share buybacks. The deal is expected to be completed in mid-2016.
Marriott said at the time of the deal announcement that it had expected to return at least $2.25 billion in dividends and share repurchases to shareholders. "Marriott believes it can return at least as much in the first year following the merger," the company said in a press release announcing the merger.
Trailing 12-Month Yield: 13.2%
12-Month Buyback Yield: 12.1%
12-Month Dividend Yield: 1.1%
American International Group, Inc. provides insurance products and services for commercial, institutional, and individual customers in the United States, the Asia Pacific, and internationally.
AIG announced in late January that it was divesting AIG Advisor Group, its broker-dealer network. The company will report fourth quarter earnings on Feb. 11.
Trailing 12-Month Yield: 13.5%
12-Month Buyback Yield: 11.3%
12-Month Dividend Yield: 2.3%
Macy's, Inc., together with its subsidiaries, operates stores and Internet websites in the United States. Its stores and websites sell a range of merchandise, including apparel and accessories for men, women, and children; cosmetics; home furnishings; and other consumer goods.
Macy's reports fourth-quarter results on Feb. 23, 2016.
Trailing 12-Month Yield: 13.7%
12-Month Buyback Yield: 10.6%
12-Month Dividend Yield: 3.1%
Valero Energy Corporation operates as an independent petroleum refining and marketing company in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, the United Kingdom, and Ireland. It operates through two segments, Refining and Ethanol.
"Our balance sheet is ... very, very strong and we intend to keep it that way," Valero CFO Mike Ciskowski said during the company's fourth-quarter earnings call last month. "Our guidance is to pay out 75% of net income for 2016. So, as far as levering up ... to meet that target, I'm not sure it will be required to do that. It's early in the year. So we'll just have to see how the year plays out."
Trailing 12-Month Yield: 14.2%
12-Month Buyback Yield: 10.6%
12-Month Dividend Yield: 3.7%
Seagate Technology Public Limited Company designs, manufactures, and sells electronic data storage products in the Asia Pacific, the Americas, and EMEA countries.
Seagate generated approximately $382 million in operating cash flow during its fiscal second quarter ending Jan. 1 and paid cash dividends of $188 million and repurchased approximately 2.9 million ordinary shares for $107 million.
5. Northrop Grumman (NOC)
Industry: Industrials/Aerospace & Defense
12-Month Total Return: 16.5%
Trailing 12-Month Yield: 15.3%
12-Month Buyback Yield: 13%
12-Month Dividend Yield: 2.2%
Northrop Grumman Corporation, a security company, provides systems, products, and solutions in aerospace, electronics, information systems, and technical service areas to government and commercial customers worldwide.
Northrop Grumman said in its most recent earnings report that the company repurchased 19.3 million shares of its common stock for $3.2 billion. As of Dec. 31, 2015, $4.3 billion remained authorized as part of its share repurchase program.
Trailing 12-Month Yield: 17.1%
12-Month Buyback Yield: 13.7%
12-Month Dividend Yield: 3.3%
Navient Corporation provides financial products and services in the United States. The company operates in four segments: FFELP Loans, Private Education Loans, Business Services, and Other.
Navient is one of 20 companies on TheStreet's distressed company index.
Navient CEO Jack Remondi addressed the company's decision to accelerate share repurchases recently in its Jan. 27 conference call to discuss fourth quarter earnings.
"Front and center for us and I know many of you, is our access to and cost of liquidity," Remondi said. "Some investors have asked about our ability to continue to return excess capital to shareholders while meeting our unsecured debt maturities. Let me be perfectly clear: I am confident we can continue to do both. In fact, we have a plan to do so."
The company authorized a $700 million share repurchase program in the quarter. Navient repurchased 56 million shares in 2015, and, since January 1, it bought back additional 5.4 million shares, to equal more than 15% of shares outstanding since the beginning of 2015. Combined, over 15% of shares outstanding at the beginning of 2015.
Between repurchases and dividends, the company returned $1.2 billion to shareholders, it said.
"We are being aggressive on our share repurchase programs and as we begin the process here after the earnings call, I think you'll see us be more aggressive than we were in the first month of the year to acquire those shares," Remondi said later in the call. "If you look at the daily trading volume we are already through the first month of the year acquiring roughly a little over 10% of trading volume. So we've been fairly active to begin with. And to the extent that we can accelerate those and capture today's prices which we totally agree are far, far below the net present value or the intrinsic value of the company ... we will continue to do so."
Trailing 12-Month Yield: 17.7%
12-Month Buyback Yield: 16.1%
12-Month Dividend Yield: 1.7%
Juniper Networks, Inc. designs, develops, and sells high-performance network products and services worldwide.
The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company repurchased $93 million of shares and paid $38 million in dividends in the final quarter of 2015.
"Since the first quarter of 2014 inclusive of share repurchases and dividends we've returned approximately $3.6 billion of capital to shareholders against our commitment to return $4.1 billion by the end of 2016," CFO Robyn Denholm said in the company's recent earnings call.
Trailing 12-Month Yield: 28.4%
12-Month Buyback Yield: 4.8%
12-Month Dividend Yield: 23.6%
KLA-Tencor Corporation designs, manufactures, and markets process control and yield management solutions worldwide.
Lam Research announced on Oct. 21, 2015, that it would acquire KLA-Tencor in a $10.6 billion deal.
Trailing 12-Month Yield: 31%
12-Month Buyback Yield: 29%
12-Month Dividend Yield: 2%
Motorola Solutions, Inc. provides mission-critical communication infrastructure, devices, software, and services in North America, Latin America, the Asia Pacific, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa. The company operates in two segments, Products and Services.
The company said it repurchased $2.1 billion of stock and paid out $70 million in dividends in the third quarter. Motorola reports fourth-quarter results on Feb. 22.