Scott Thurm and Serena Ng have an odd piece in today’s WSJ, complaining about executive pay being tied to per-share results rather than overall numbers. Their poster child is Safeway CEO Steven Burd, who has overseen a substantial increase in earnings per share even as sales and profits have gone nowhere, by spending $1.2 billion on stock buybacks.
The implication here is that public companies should be concentrating on growth, rather than on more financial metrics like earnings per share or return on equity. And I think that’s exactly wrong. Not all companies should be growing; some of them, in order to maximize their return on capital, should instead be shrinking. The world’s biggest banks are a good example: most of them are trying to shrink, because doing so will make them leaner, more efficient, and ultimately more valuable.
Stock buybacks aren’t always a good idea: companies do have a tendency to spend far too much money on them at exactly the wrong time, when the share price is high. (There are many examples, but one of the most tragic is probably the New York Times Company (NYSE:NYT), which today is in desperate need of the $2.7 billion it spent on stock buybacks between 1998 and 2004, when the stock was much more expensive than it is now.)
On the other hand, stock buybacks are a very efficient way of returning money to shareholders: they’re basically a pick-your-own-dividend scheme. Many shareholders, especially individual shareholders in high tax brackets, dislike dividends, because they’re taxable income. But if a company takes the money it would otherwise spend on dividends, and spends it instead on buybacks, then shareholders have a choice: they can sell any proportion of their shares back to the company, in line with their liquidity needs, and if they sell nothing then the value of their shares goes up just because the total number of shares is going down. On top of that, companies don’t feel the same need to maintain a steady level of buybacks, in the way that they do feel the need to maintain a steady level of dividends.
If more public companies concentrated on earnings per share rather than overall earnings growth, that would probably be a good thing. Right now, it’s almost impossible to be a successful CEO of a public company whose industry or company is in long-term secular decline. And private-equity companies are well aware of that fact: they love to buy up such firms and extract vast amounts of money from them before they die. Rather than see the spoils of such tactics accrue mainly to the Mitt Romneys of this world, it would be great if the broad shareholding public could also participate in the efficient rotation of capital out of declining industries and into growing ones.
That’s the way the stock market is meant to work, after all: you invest in companies while they are growing, in the hope and expectation that you will be able to make money from their high future cashflows once they reach maturity. But in practice the stock market has great difficulty valuing companies which make large but falling profits, with the result that most of those profits ultimately end up going to private-equity types once the companies are acquired in a leveraged buy-out.
Safeway (NYSE:SWY) is faced with a choice right now: it can burn billions of dollars in what would probably be a fruitless attempt to compete with Walmart (NYSE:WMT), or it can return those billions to shareholders, to be reinvested in more promising areas. Safeway’s CEO should choose between those options dispassionately, rather than simply assuming that more investment is always better — and his board should compensate him in such a way that he’s incentivized to make the best decision, rather than always going for growth.
Stock buybacks are an efficient way of returning money to shareholders of a shrinking company, and as such they’re an important part of the public-company CEO toolbox. I’m sure they can be abused at times to manipulate quarterly earnings. But they can also be a pretty efficient way of doing what the stock market is meant to do best: distributing capital to where it can be most effectively deployed. If Safeway has more capital than it can efficiently use, then it should return that capital to the market, where it can be recycled into more promising investments. And in principle it’s entirely reasonable to reward the CEO for doing just that.