Why Stock Buybacks Are Dangerous for the Economy – Harvard Business Review

Why Stock Buybacks Are Dangerous for the Economy – Harvard Business Review

Even as the United States continues to experience its longest economic expansion since World War II, concern is growing that soaring corporate debt will make the economy susceptible to a contraction that could get out of control. The root cause of this concern is the trillions of dollars that major U.S. corporations have spent on open-market repurchases — aka “stock buybacks” — since the financial crisis a decade ago. In 2018 alone, with corporate profits bolstered by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, companies in the S&P 500 Index did a combined $806 billion in buybacks, about $200 billion more than the previous record set in 2007. The $370 billion in repurchases which these companies did in the first half of 2019 is on pace for total annual buybacks that are second only to 2018. When companies do these buybacks, they deprive themselves of the liquidity that might help them cope when sales and profits decline in an economic downturn.

Making matters worse, the proportion of buybacks funded by corporate bonds reached as high as 30% in both 2016 and 2017, according to JPMorgan Chase. The International Monetary Fund’s Global Financial Stability Report, issued in October, highlights “debt-funded payouts” as a form of financial risk-taking by U.S. companies that “can considerably weaken a firm’s credit quality.”

It can make sense for a company to leverage retained earnings with debt to finance investment in productive capabilities that may eventually yield product revenues and corporate profits. Taking on debt to finance buybacks, however, is bad management, given that no revenue-generating investments are made that can allow the company to pay off the debt. In addition to plant and equipment, a company needs to invest in expanding the knowledge and skills of its employees, and it needs to reward them for their contributions to the company’s productivity. These investments in the company’s knowledge base fuel innovations in products and processes that enable it to gain and sustain an advantage over other firms in its industry.

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