Stock Buybacks Are a Symptom, Not a Disease

Paul Roberts writes in the LA Times today about stock buybacks:

Here's a depressing statistic: Last year, U.S. companies spent a whopping $598 billion — not to develop new technologies, open new markets or to hire new workers but to buy up their own shares. By removing shares from circulation, companies made remaining shares pricier, thus creating the impression of a healthier business without the risks of actual business activity.

I agree: that statistic is depressing. In fact, back in the days of my foolish youth, when I dabbled a bit in stock picking, one of my rules was never to invest in a company that had done a share buyback. I figured it was a sign of tired management. If they couldn't think of anything better to do with their money than that, what kind of future did they have? Moving on:

Share buybacks aren't illegal, and, to be fair, they make sense when companies truly don't have something better to reinvest their profits in. But U.S. companies do have something better: They could be reinvesting in the U.S. economy in ways that spur growth and generate jobs. The fact that they're not explains a lot about the weakness of the job market and the sliding prospects of the American middle class.

....Without a more socially engaged corporate culture, the U.S. economy will continue to lose the capacity to generate long-term prosperity, compete globally or solve complicated economic challenges, such as climate change. We need to restore a broader sense of the corporation as a social citizen — no less focused on profit but far more cognizant of the fact that, in an interconnected economic world, there is no such thing as narrow self-interest.

I agree with some of what Roberts says about American corporations increasingly being obsessed with short-term stock gains rather than long-term growth. It's also true that stock buybacks are partly driven by CEO pay packages that are pegged to share price. Those have been standard complaints for decades. But it's misleading to suggest that US companies could be spurring the economy if only they'd invest more of their profits in growth. That gets it backwards. Companies will invest if they think they'll get a good return on that investment, and that decision depends on the likely trajectory of the macroeconomy. If it looks like economic growth will be strong, they'll invest more money in new plants and better equipment. If not, they won't.

The macroeconomy doesn't depend on either companies or individuals acting altruistically. You can't pass a law banning stock buybacks and expect that companies will invest in plant expansion and worker training instead. They'll only do it if those investments look likely to pay off. Conversely, forcing them to make investments that will lose money does nothing for the economy except light lots of money on fire.

You want companies to invest in the future? The first step is supporting economic policies that will grow the economy. If we were willing to do that, corporate investment would follow. If we don't, all the laws in the world won't keep the tide from coming in.