stock buybacks: the curious case of IBM

Regular readers will know that I’m not a fan of stock buybacks by companies.  I believe that even though buybacks are advertised as returning cash to shareholders in a tax-efficient way, their main effect–even if not their purpose–is to keep the dilutive effects of management stock options away from the attention of ordinary shareholders.  Admittedly, I haven’t done a study of all firms that buy back stock, but in the cases I have looked at the shares retired this way somehow end up offsetting new shares issued to management.  As a result, you and I never see the slow but steady shift in ownership away from us and toward employees.

In recent years, activist investors have made increasing stock buybacks a staple of their toolkit for “helping” stick-in-the-mud companies improve their returns.  Certainly, accelerating buybacks can give a stock an immediate price boost.  But since I don’t believe that the usual activist suspects have your or my long-term welfare as shareholders at heart, I’ve had an eye out for cases where extensive buybacks have ceased to work their magic.

I found IBM.

Actually I should put the same ” ” around found that I put around helping two paragraphs above.  I stumbled across an article late last year in, I think, the Financial Times that asserted all IBM’s earnings per share growth over the past five years came–not from operations–but from share buybacks.  A case of what Japan in the roaring 1980s called zaitech.  Hard to believe.

I’ve finally gotten around to looking.  I searched in vain for the article.  I found a relatively weak offering from the New York Times Dealbook, whose main source appears, somewhat embarrassingly for the authors, to have been IBM market-speak in its annual report.  I did find an excellent two-part series in the FT that I’d somehow missed but which appeared earlier this month.  It’s useful not only conceptually but also for IBM history.

IBM

The FT outlines the essence of the IBM plan to grow eps from $11.52  in 2010 to $20 by this year–a target abandoned last October by the new CEO..  Of the $8.50 per share advance, $3.50 was to come from revenue growth, both organic and from acquisitions; $2.50 each were to come from operating leverage–which I take to be the effect of keeping SG&A flat while revenues expanded–and share buybacks.

What actually happened from 2010 through 2014 is far different:

–IBM’s revenues, even factoring in acquisitions, fell by 7% over the five years

–2014’s operating profit was 5% higher than 2010’s

–net profit grew by 7.0%, aided by a lower tax rate,

–nevertheless, earnings per share grew by 35%!

How did this happen?

Over the five years, until share buybacks came to a screeching halt in 4Q14, IBM spent just about $70 billion on the open market on its own stock.  That’s over 3x the company’s capital expenditures over the same period.  It’s also about 3x R&D expenditure, which is probably a better indicator for a software firm.  And it’s over 3x dividend payments.

The buying reduced the share count by 315 million to 995 million shares.  The actual number of shares bought, figuring a $175 average price, would have been about 400 million.  I presume the remainder are to offset shares issued to employees exercising stock options (although there may be some acquisition stock in there–no easy way to find that out).

results?

What I find most interesting is that, other than a flurry in the first half of 2011, the huge expenditure did no good.  IBM shares have underperformed pretty consistently, despite the massive support given by the company.  And IBM has $13 billion more in debt that it had before the heavy buybacks began.

Where is the company now?

I don’t know it well enough to say for sure, but it appears to me that it has taken recent earnings disappointments to jolt IBM into the realization that the 2010 master plan hasn’t worked.  A half-decade of the corporate equivalent of liposuction and heavy makeup has not returned the firm to health.  Instead, IBM has burned up a lot of time   …and a mountain of cash.

I think it’s also reasonable to ask how ordinary IBM shareholders have benefitted from the $60+ per share “returned” to them through buybacks.  I don’t see many plusses.  The stock dropped by about $20 last October, when IBM officially gave up the 2010 plan, so some investors were fooled by the company’s zaitech.  But spending $60+ to postpone a $20 loss that happened anyway doesn’t seem like much of a deal.

Only the board of directors knows why almost five years elapsed before anyone noticed the plan had long since gone off the rails.

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