By David Sterman
After stocks slumped badly this summer, many questioned the wisdom of big stock buyback programs. After all, companies were spending huge amounts of cash on repurchases at formerly higher prices and would have been able to buy a lot more shares if they waited until stock prices really slumped. Yet just as individual investors can't time the market, neither can corporations. And with cash balances rising higher and higher, buybacks, along with dividends, are the most logical use of a company's money right now.
The real takeaway of buybacks is the real leverage it can provide to earnings per share (EPS) growth. Take toy maker Hasbro (NYSE: HAS) as an example. Net income is likely to fall roughly $25 million to $375 million this year, as the toy maker derives fewer benefits from the Transformers movie franchise than it did in 2010. Yet earnings per share are likely to be around $2.80 this year, up around 7% from a year ago. Goldman Sachs figures that ongoing stock buybacks will actually boost the company's 2011 results by around $0.20. Were it not for the shrinking share count, Hasbro would be suffering from negative year-over-year EPS comparisons.
For many companies in the midst of big buybacks, a shrinking share count can help propel moderate net income gains into more robust EPS gains. Here are three stocks that are clearly benefiting from a rapidly shrinking share count.
1. Intel (Nasdaq: INTC)
The fact that this chip giant delivered 24% net income growth (on a non-GAAP basis) in its third quarter is surely impressive, when much of the investment community had seemingly written off the desktop and laptop computer markets in the face of the tablet computer onslaught. But the fact that earnings per share rose by 33% should be even more attention-grabbing.
Intel is doing its best to appeal to dividend-focused investors, spending $1.1 billion in the most recent quarter in support of a payout that currently yields 3.6%. Yet another $4 billion was spent re-acquiring company stock, eliminating 186 million shares from the share count. In fact, Intel is so focused on shrinking the share count that it just announced plans to borrow $5 billion to increase its current share repurchase plan by another $10 billion to bring it up to $14 billion. ($4 billion remained on the previous plan.) If completed, that would reduce the share count by an additional 11%, which means net income growth could slow to just 5%-10% in 2012, but EPS growth would still stay in the more impressive 15%-20% range. Despite a 4% jump in Wednesday trading, shares still trade for less than 10 times likely (upwardly revised) 2012 profit forecasts.
2. Ball Corp. (NYSE: BLL)
A fast-rising Chinese middle class is the reason this company is boosting sales at a double-digit clip this year. Ball is the largest supplier of soda cans in the United States, the second-largest in Europe, and the largest in China. (The company also has strong market share in food cans.) It's a healthy business: Ball is expected to generate $400 million in free cash flow this year, and $500 million in free cash flow next year, according to analysts at Merrill Lynch.
You would think aluminum cans is a fairly boring and quite mature business. Yet at a recent analyst meeting, Ball's management ran through a series of new types of cans and bottles (such as its Alumi-Tek re-sealable bottles) that are driving growth. But management's top-line growth plans aren't really the story here. Instead, it's what all that free cash flow is doing to the share count. The number of shares outstanding has fallen for seven straight years to around 183.5 million by the end of 2010, but that figure may fall to 150 million by 2013, according to Merrill Lynch. The EPS impact: Merrill assumes after-tax income will rise almost 20% from $430 million in 2010 to $511 million by 2013. But a radical cut in the share count should boost EPS 42% during that time frame, from $2.29 to $3.25.
3. Assurant (NYSE: AIZ)
This specialty insurer has managed to shrink its share count every year since going public back in 2004. And while shares remain at a tangible discount to book value, management intends to keep buying back stock. The insurer bought back $533 million worth of stock in 2010, and analysts at Sterne Agee think Assurant will spend $500 million on buybacks in 2011, another $600 million in 2012 and $500 million more in 2013. This would reduce the year-end share count from 2011 to 2013 by 26%.
So even though the analysts foresee operating income rising 14% during that time frame (from $426 million to $489 million), they think EPS will rise from $4.41 in 2011 to $6.50 in 2013, a 47% jump. By the end of 2013, tangible book value per share should approach $55. That's far above the current $38 share price.
Risks to Consider: The biggest risk for these companies is a newly-weakened economy bringing down stock prices across the board, which would make these big buybacks look like an ill-timed, injudicious use of a company's capital base.
These companies are boosting per share profits at a fast clip, even as the economy remains in a funk. Shrinking share counts also set the stage for sharply higher profits when the next upswing in the economic cycle arrives. Any of these three stocks merit further research on your part, but from where I sit, they look pretty enticing.
Disclosure: Neither D. Sterman nor StreetAuthority, LLC hold positions in any securities mentioned in this article.