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Summary

  • GE has spent nearly $19 billion on stock buybacks in the last 13 quarters.
  • In addition to cutting back the outstanding shares, the company has avoided paying dividends of over $1 billion over that time.
  • I will discuss how good (or bad) the return on investment has been for the buybacks.

Introduction

When a company buys back its own stock, we often like to write about how great that is - or, how bad that is, depending on the opinion of the writer. What we don't often see is a quantitative analysis of what the return for the company actually was for past buybacks.

It is important to calculate the Buyback ROI (return on investment). If a company could use cash to expand the business at a rate of x and the buyback return computes to a rate of y, then, as a shareholder, you want to see y > x. That is obviously a bit of oversimplification. There are other factors for company management to consider when it comes to buybacks. However, a solid rate of return compared to other options should be very high on the priority list.

When a company buys back stock and the price rises, that is good! It will achieve a positive Buyback ROI. When the stock goes lower than the buyback price, that is bad! The company's Buyback ROI will normally be negative in that case. Note that saved dividend payouts can push the Buyback ROI into positive territory, even if the stock goes lower from the buyback point.

I won't go into the nitty-gritties of the math behind all the calculations. I will summarize the calculations, which should be sufficient for those readers with an understanding of the principles.

GE's Recent Buybacks

General Electric (NYSE:GE) has been fairly active in buybacks over the last 13 quarters. Here is a graph of the outstanding shares:

GE Shares Outstanding Chart

GE Shares Outstanding data by YCharts

GE spent about $18.91 billion over the last 13 quarters on stock buybacks, and the value of those shares as of Q1 2014 was about $21.85 billion. That equates to a total gain of about 15.5%, but does not tell us the annualized gain of either the shares themselves nor the $1 billion in dividend payouts saved during that time. To get a figure that is meaningful, we need to do the slightly painful calculation of the Buyback ROI.

Looking at the last 13 quarters reveals the following history:

Time PeriodShares BoughtAvg. Price of Purchase
Q1 201126,516,00019.87
Q2 201120,867,00019.48
Q3 201163,989,00016.27
Q4 20112,594,00016.43
Q1 20123,334,00019.18
Q2 201246,377,00019.25
Q3 2012101,556,00021.01
Q4 2012100,955,00021.46
Q1 201382,845,00022.95
Q2 2013176,878,00023.00
Q3 201386,978,00023.88
Q4 201388,193,00027.00
Q1 201446,952,00025.76

(Source: GE 10-Q and 10-K filings)

The following steps are taken to determine the Buyback ROI:

  1. For each quarter, multiply the shares bought by the avg. price = amount spent.
  2. Multiply the cumulative shares bought by the dividend paid that quarter = dividend payout saved.
  3. Add the dividend payout saved to the amount spent = cash inflow (or outflow) for the quarter.
  4. Repeat steps 1-3 for the 13-quarter analysis.
  5. For the last quarter, multiply the cumulative shares purchased by the final quarter share price, and add that number into the cash inflow (or outflow) for the quarter. This is the final value of all the shares the company purchased.
  6. Finally, all of the 13 calculated cash inflows (or outflows) are run through an internal rate of return calculation to produce the Buyback ROI figure.

For GE, in the last 13 quarters, the Buyback ROI was an excellent 19.2%.

By comparing the Buyback ROI to the "Buyback Strategy" and to the "Buyback Effectiveness", we can know how well the company picked the exact timing of the buybacks it made. The article that I linked above uses those two terms to mean the following:

  • Buyback Strategy: The CAGR of the total return of the stock during the time of the analysis. This can be thought of as the "baseline" ROI number that the buyback would have achieved if the stock had no peaks or valleys. In other words, if the stock simply moved in a straight line, this would be identical to the Buyback ROI.
  • Buyback Effectiveness: A comparison of the actual Buyback ROI to the Buyback Strategy: (1 + Buyback ROI) / (1 + Buyback Strategy) - 1. If a company has a positive Buyback Effectiveness, then it did a good job buying on the dips and avoiding the peaks. Think of this number as a scorecard measuring the short-term trading ability of the company.

Our final figures are as follows:

Buyback ROI: 19.2%

Buyback Strategy: 12.2%

Buyback Effectiveness: 6.2%

Conclusion

There are many other factors of buybacks to consider whenever evaluating any company. Does the company use a lot of stock options to pay employees? Are the buybacks used as a desperate measure to bump up EPS for a business that has slow growth? The list of pros and cons for buybacks is long and eminently debatable. Those are important, but are beyond the scope of this article.

The main priority of a company buyback should be to get a return on investment that is better than other options for the funds. Buying back stock when it is undervalued is an excellent use of cash (or even low-cost debt, up to a point). GE has gotten good "bang for its buck" by achieving a 19.2% annualized return on its buybacks over the last 13 quarters. The company was good (or lucky) at buying under the stock's trend line, which would have garnered a return of 12.2%.

GE is authorized to repurchase up to about $12 billion more in shares through 2015.

Source: General Electric: 19.2% Return On Investment