Editor's note: Seeking Alpha is proud to welcome Christine Short as a new contributor. It's easy to become a Seeking Alpha contributor and earn money for your best investment ideas. Active contributors also get free access to SA Premium. Click here to find out more »
Originally posted on September 7, 2022
On August 16, President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) into law. With its passage comes a new 1% excise tax on corporate net share repurchases. “The buyback tax” aims to penalize companies for engaging in this type of shareholder-accretive activity. Like so many pieces of legislation, this tax could spark unintended consequences, such as a wave of corporate buyback authorizations and executions this year, since the excise tax only applies to the market value of net corporate shares repurchased starting in 2023.
Wall Street Horizon closely tracks buyback authorizations in two flavors: initial and modifications. We tend to see more announcements of this corporate event type during the good times. Our data reveal that there was a relative dearth of share repurchase announcements during the middle of 2016 when global growth was sluggish, and then again around the March 2020 Covid uncertainty. Buyback program initiations and modifications rose big in 2018 following a strong year for stocks in 2017 and the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Another flurry of activity happened during the year of speculation that was 2021. This year, however, the count of buyback events has dropped off. It’s important to recognize that these data are a count of events among companies around the world - it does not measure the dollar value of share repurchase authorizations or executions.
The second-quarter earnings season is in the books. It’s quite possible that the next several weeks could feature unanticipated buyback program initiations among U.S. companies seeking to pull-forward share repurchases before next year’s 1% tax hits. We already might be seeing this - Bank of America Global Research reports that its corporate clients bought back stock at the highest rate since January in the week after the bill went into effect. While a 1% tax is not much, some argue it could open the door to heftier tax rates down the line. Gauging the political winds is never easy, but the Congressional Democrats are gaining ground in the polls and betting markets. A divided Congress could be in the offing. Therefore, it is unlikely that we would see major tweaks to the tax in the next two years after the midterms.
Investors should watch how things unfold. After all, an excise tax on corporate shares repurchased is essentially a tax on shareholders. That is how former Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Jay Clayton described it recently to CNBC. The C-Suite understands this, and corporate executives will change policy depending on the tax situation. Fifty-five percent of U.S. CFOs surveyed said a hypothetical 2% excise tax on buybacks would make them rethink how they return cash to stockholders.
The trickle-down effects from this piece of the IRA should not go unnoticed. If buying back stock is more expensive, then other methods to reward shareholders could become more popular. It’s natural to assume that dividend announcements would increase, and perhaps one-off special dividends would be more common if a long-lasting or higher buyback tax is in place.
Moreover, corporate cash is building, so executives might be antsy about how to allocate capital. Another possibility is that CFOs might get more creative with cash flow - cash- or debt-financed merger & acquisition activity may appear more attractive. According to August’s Bank of America Global Fund Manager Survey, returning capital to shareholders in one form or another is not a major preference right now. But that preference could change should volatility in the markets calm.
Investors must also know what they own. While a stock’s dividend yield is commonly known and cited, less bantered about is a company’s net buyback yield. That is, the net value of shares repurchased divided by a firm’s market cap. According to WisdomTree, using data from FactSet, investors with significant positions in the Financials and Communications Services sectors face the most risk from a buyback tax (but perhaps potential upside this year before the tax is applied). Two sectors have negative net buyback yields and would be largely unaffected by the excise tax: Utilities and Real Estate.
Wall Street Horizon’s corporate event data coverage includes a detailed count of global share repurchase initiations and modifications so investors know what’s happening with buyback policies of the stocks they own. We also aggregate the data to spot macro trends. The new IRA legislation brings about more uncertainty regarding shareholder-accretive activities. Investors must carefully weigh portfolio risks ahead of 2023.
Editor's Note: The summary bullets for this article were chosen by Seeking Alpha editors.
This article was written by