Dry a subject as you’d imagine they would be, buybacks have become a topic every bit as polarizing as some of our political discussions. No matter how nuanced your view, it will be auto-tuned to some extreme by the obedience collar-wielding ideologues on one end of the spectrum or the dog whistle-wielding ideologues on the other.
Even now, someone is preparing a “stop with the bothsideism – it’s just math” response without reading any further.
It’s not about the math.
Sure, in nearly all cases where companies buy back stock, in the narrowest interpretation of that specific action of buying back stock, is management acting ethically and in the interest of shareholders”? Almost universally yes, because math. In a nearly universal range of circumstances, stock buybacks evaluated independent of other considerations are a really good, really efficient way to return capital to shareholders to deploy as they desire. In a very real sense, it can represent a company delivering on its most fundamental duty to the people who trusted it with capital: returning it to them with greater value.
So why isn’t it about the math?
Because the questions being asked about buybacks go beyond “in the narrowest interpretation, is management acting ethically and in the interest of shareholders.”
Because what buybacks (and any form of return of capital) tell us in general about corporate opportunities and American willingness to take business risk to produce returns at a macro scale matters.
Because what that tells us about how central banks and other policymakers are artificially influencing the relative attractiveness of those investment opportunities matters.
Because the way in which stock-based compensation structures may be exploiting the general (and appropriate) approbation of stock buy-backs among investors in order to mask the appearance of higher tax-advantaged compensation matters.
Because even if you don’t think these things are nearly as bad as buybacks are good (and they are good), if you don’t realize that Wall Street is losing this meta-game, you aren’t paying attention.
So when you read this article in the Atlantic today, I suspect you will probably respond (or already responded) like I did:
You will cringe at the predictable framing of the issue around Michael Milken for some damned reason.
You’ll have ammunition ready to dispute the conclusions, robustness and analytical quality of the Fortuna study.
You’ll wince at the loaded word choices. “Draining capital.” “Corrupts the underpinnings of capitalism itself.” Really?
You will be ready to highlight how comparison of buybacks to corporate salaries without applying the same logic to dividends, debt reduction or any other effective return of capital is cherry-picking bias meant to inflame a certain kind of reader.
You will read the closing paragraph, chuckle at its sheer cheek, and find your brethren in the break room, colleagues at other shops and followers on social media to laugh about its bias and absurdity.
And you’d be in the right to do so. It is. It’s biased. It’s absurd.
And yet, it is also worth remembering our oft-told tale of coyotes and raccoons.
You see, you and me? We’re the coyotes. We’re wise enough to understand that those jars of pennies the Wilton retiree is shaking at us won’t actually hurt us. We know we’re right about the math of this efficient return of capital that is buybacks, and we’re going to shout down all this terrible analysis until everyone realizes we’re right. We are too clever by half.
Those guys in boardrooms figuring out ways to take advantage of our charitable passion for this issue to immunize their non-cash comp? They’re the raccoons. And they will continue to succeed in skimming the cream off their artificial EPS beats as long as we’re so focused on arguing with the Gell-Mann Amnesia-ridden readership of the Atlantic about the obvious damn math of buybacks.
It’s. Not. About. The. Math.
If we care about maintaining the flexibility of corporate management teams to deploy and return capital flexibly and with the least interference by regulators and politicians – and we should – every moment that we spend as an industry debating and analyzing the math of buybacks instead of actively seeking out and rooting out raccoonish boards and management teams is an utter waste of time. The right to return capital in a very sensible way will be legislated out of existence (again) while we thump our chests about whether the data-set used in some dumb article properly accounted for survivorship bias.
This topic is firmly in narrative land now, folks, and if you’re playing this as a single debate to be won instead of the metagame it now is, you’ll lose. But at least you’ll be right. So you got that going for you, which is nice.