Expect Buybacks to Sustain Markets

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With uncertainty swirling around the financial markets right now, many are warning about a financial storm brewing and how to navigate through it.

Let’s consider the storm elements in the world right now. The ongoing trade war is obviously a major concern, which is nowhere near being resolved. Growth is slowing in many parts of the world and central banks are preparing to begin cutting rates again.

Geopolitical tensions are also rising again, especially in the Persian Gulf. Late last week, Iranian forces seized a British-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s most important chokepoints. Britain has demanded the ship’s release.

On the U.S. domestic front, we are facing government dysfunctional, trade war uncertainty and a looming debt ceiling deadline. A deal will likely be reached, but that is not a guarantee. If a deal isn’t reached, the federal government would run out of money to pay its bills.

That’s why you should consider the tactics of Warren Buffett along with the strategy used by some of the most skilled sailors.

Buffett, one of the most successful investors in history, has made billions by knowing how to steer through storms. One of my favorite Buffettisms has to do with keeping your eye on the horizon, a steady-as-she-goes approach to investing. It also happens to relate to sailing.

As he famously said, “I don’t look to jump over seven-foot bars; I look around for one-foot bars that I can step over.”

What that means is that you should carefully consider what’s ahead and choose your course accordingly. Buffett doesn’t strive to be a hero if the risk of failing, or crashing against the rocks (in sailing lingo), is too great.

In a storm, there are two possible strategies to take. The first one is to ride through it. The second is to avoid it or head for more space in the open ocean. In other words, fold down your sails and wait it out until you have a better opportunity to push ahead.

While there is no perfect maneuver for getting through a storm, staying levelheaded is key.

We are at the beginning of another corporate earnings season, which is the period each quarter when companies report on how well (or poorly) they did in the prior quarter.

The reports can lag the overall environment but still give insight on how a company will be positioned in the new quarter. But to get the most out of them requires the right navigation techniques.

This season’s corporate earnings results have been mostly positive so far. But what you should know is that Wall Street analysts always tend to downplay their expectations of corporate earnings going into reporting periods. That because corporations downplay them to analysts. It’s Wall Street’s way of gaming the system.

When I was a managing director at Goldman Sachs, senior members of the firm would gather together each quarter with the chairman and CEO of the firm, Hank Paulson, who went on to become the Treasury secretary of the United States under President George W. Bush.

He would talk with us about the overall state of the firm, and then the earnings figures would be discussed by the chief financial officer.

This would be just before our results were publicly disclosed to the markets. There was always internal competition amongst the big investment banks as to what language was being provided to external analysts about earnings and how the results ultimately compared with that language.

You couldn’t be too far off between “managing expectations” of the market and results of the earnings statements. However, there was a large gray area in between that was exploited each quarter.

When I was there, it was very important for Goldman to have better results than immediate competitors at the time like Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch or Lehman Bros.

It was crucial to “beat” analysts’ expectations. That provided the greatest chance of the share price rallying after earnings were released.

The bulk of our Wall Street compensation was paid in annual bonuses, not salaries. These bonuses were in turn paid out in options linked to share prices. That’s why having prices rise after fourth-quarter earnings was especially important in shaping the year’s final bonus numbers.

Here’s what that experience taught me: There’s always a game when it comes to earnings.

Investors that don’t know this tend to get earnings season all wrong. However, successful investors that take forecasts with a grain of salt will do better.

Years later, I realized this was also Warren Buffett’s approach to analyzing earnings. As he has told CNBC, “I like to get those quarterly reports. I do not like guidance. I think the guidance leads to a lot of bad things, and I’ve seen it lead to a lot of bad things.”

We’ll have to see how earnings season turns out. But good or bad, markets are finding support from the same phenomenon that powered them to record heights last year: stock buybacks.

Of course, years of quantitative easing (QE) created many of the conditions that made buybacks such powerful market mechanisms. Buybacks work to drive stock prices higher. Companies could borrow money and buy their own stocks on the cheap, increasing the size of corporate debt and the level of the stock market to record highs. Corporations actually account for the greatest demand for stocks..

And a J.P. Morgan study concludes that the stock prices of U.S. and European corporations that engage in high amounts of buybacks have outperformed other stocks by 4% over the past 25 years.

Last year established a record for buybacks. While they will probably not match the same figure this year, buybacks are still a major force driving markets higher.

And amidst escalating trade wars and all the other concerns facing today’s markets, executing buybacks makes the most sense for the companies that have the cash to engage in them. If companies are concerned about growth slow downs in the future, there is good reason to use their excess cash for buybacks.

What this means is that the companies with money for buybacks have good reason to double down.

As a Reuters article has noted, “the escalating trade war between the United States and China may prompt U.S. companies to shift money they had earmarked for capital expenditures into stock buybacks instead, pushing record levels of corporate share repurchases even higher.”

So buybacks could prop up the market through volatile periods ahead and drive the current bull market even further.

Of course, buybacks also represent a problem. They boost a stock in the short term, yes. But that higher stock price in the short may come at the expense of the long run. It’s a short-term strategy.

That’s because companies are not using their cash for expansion, for R&D, or to pay workers more, which would generate more buying power in the overall economy. Buybacks are not connected to organic growth and are detached from the foundation of any economy.

But buybacks could keep the ball rolling a while longer. And I expect they will. One day it’ll come to an end. But not just yet.

Regards,

Nomi Prins
for The Daily Reckoning

The post Expect Buybacks to Sustain Markets appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

Expect the Buyback Wave to Continue This Year

This post Expect the Buyback Wave to Continue This Year appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

A crucial theme from last year is continuing into this year — stock buybacks. Last year was a banner year for companies buying back their own shares. A month into 2019, it appears that Wall Street is set to continue that trend.

Last year, U.S. companies announced a whopping $1.1 trillion worth of buyback plans. Armed with extra cash from favorable corporate tax policy enacted in 2017, they enthusiastically bought back their own shares.

But as of mid-December, only about $800 billion of those buybacks had actually occurred. That means there could be another $300 billion of the total 2018 target still waiting to hit the market.

In fact, Wall Street is already gearing up for another banner buyback year. In a recent report, J.P. Morgan strategist Dubravko Lakos-Bujas wrote, “It’s expected that S&P 500 companies will execute some $800 billion in buybacks… in 2019.”

The Wall Street strategist also explained that the quality of 2018 buybacks were high. He revealed that companies were using their cash, rather than borrowed money, to fund buybacks. Using cash toward buybacks is expensive less than using debt.

But why did the wave of buybacks slow down late last year?

The first reason is that companies involved had already purchased stock at a very rapid rate through last September. That was one major reason we saw the market peak around that time, and in fact, hit new records.

The second was that despite trade war fears and uncertainty, companies felt confident enough to go ahead with their buybacks initially. That’s why we saw market players largely shrug off warning signs through the first three quarters of 2018.

But sentiment shifted dramatically during the last quarter of the year, culminating in essentially a bear market by late December. And more reports around the world began to point to slowing economic growth ahead.

A key factor cited for this slowdown was the impact of prolonged trade wars, which could curb real economic activity and create more uncertainty. In turn, growing volatility would keep businesses from planning expansions, or using the cash originally set aside for buybacks.

A third reason for the drop off in buybacks late last year was a record amount of public corporate and consumer debt that had to be repaid or at least serviced regularly. This overhang of debt was weighing on growth expectations. That debt load would become even more expensive if the Fed kept up with its forecasted rate hike activity in December and throughout 2019.

Some analysts even warned that the Fed might go ahead with another four rate hikes this year. That triggered fears on Wall Street that the central bank stimulus game could truly be over.

The reason for the concern is simple: The higher the interest rates, the more expensive it is to borrow and repay existing debt. For more highly leveraged corporations and emerging market countries, this would be an even greater threat. A higher dollar, resulting from more Fed tightening, could cause other currencies to depreciate against the dollar. That would make it harder to repay debt taken out in dollars.

Finally, there was heightened tension in the financial markets due to political uncertainty. With U.S. election results ensuring added battles between Congress (with Democrats taking the majority in the House of Representatives) and the White House, doubt set in over the functionality of the U.S. government going forward.

Those reservations were justified. The government shutdown that kicked off 2019 had a lot to do with shifts in the political balance in Washington.

Geopolitical tensions also rose at the end of 2018, including Brexit in the United Kingdom, street revolts in France, potential recession fears in Italy and growing unrest in South America.

All these factors combined ensured that markets were extremely volatile during the last quarter of 2018, and why it was the worst one for the markets since the Great Depression. It was not conducive to buybacks. Buybacks are supposed to raise the stock price. But strong market headwinds could have largely canceled their effects.

The prudent approach for companies facing such a negative environment was to wait out the problems until the new year.

But Jerome Powell subsequently gave into Wall Street and took a much more dovish position on both rate hikes and balance sheet reductions. That means the coast is clear again to resume the buybacks.

Back in December, some major players announced plans for 2019 buybacks. These include Boeing, which announced an $18 billion repurchase program. It also includes tech giant Facebook, which plans to buy back $9 billion of its own shares, in addition to an existing $15 billion share repurchase program started in 2017.

Also in on the buyback wave is Johnson & Johnson, which announced a $5 billion stock buyback. Others include Lowe’s and Pfizer, which both announced a $10 billion stock buyback program.

These plans are now much more likely to go forward.

Furthermore, many large corporations like Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, Home Depot and Walmart didn’t even announce buybacks in 2018.

They could well announce them for 2019. Companies that did announce big buybacks last year, like Apple, could also engage in more, adding a potential $100 billion share repurchases this year to match 2018.

Another indicator for a sizeable 2019 buyback wave is that stock prices are lower now than they were going into the fourth quarter of 2018. That means companies can buy back their shares at cheaper prices. They could buy at a discount, in other words, or at least what they hope will be a discount.

My old Wall Street firm, Goldman Sachs, has already forecast $940 billion worth of buybacks for 2019. They previously had predicted over a trillion dollars’ worth of buybacks for 2018. The number of buybacks for 2018 even exceeded their predictions.

By mid-January, of the S&P 500 companies that reported their fourth-quarter earnings, nearly 70% of them have exceeded Wall Street’s profit expectations. It’s a favorable environment for buybacks.

Yet, it may still take some time for companies to move forward with this year’s buybacks. That’s because we are still in the “black-out” period that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has created.

The period covers the time just before and after companies post earnings results. The sell-off in October coincided with the third quarter earnings season’s “blackout period.” The combination of negative environmental factors plus fewer buybacks drove markets even lower.

Now, once earnings season and the current blackout period is over, Wall Street will be unleashed to buy large blocks of stock for their major corporate clients.

If the Federal Reserve truly holds back on its former interest rate and quantitative tightening plans, as it seems likely to do, expect central bank stimulus to continue to fuel markets.

Of course, buybacks do not come without negative implications. That’s because companies are not using their cash for expansion or to pay workers more, which would generate more buying power in the overall economy. But in the short run at least, they tend to raise the stock price.

Even if Wall Street comes up against headwinds of volatility, slowing economic growth, political strife and trade wars, they can now expect the Fed and other central banks to have their backs.

Buybacks could become a very powerful force once again this year, and keep the ball rolling a while longer.

Regards,

Nomi Prins

The post Expect the Buyback Wave to Continue This Year appeared first on Daily Reckoning.