Whether you’re a bullish investor or a bearish investor, stock buybacks are something that you’ve probably been talking about over the last couple of years.

The fact is, buybacks have long been touted by bullish investors as having many excellent benefits, including the fact that shareholders get return capital without being taxed twice, which causes the per share earnings increase and, technically, increases demand for the company’s shares as well.

If you talk to a bearish investor however, they will tell you that buybacks are the reason that earnings have risen during the last few years, and will likely insist that buybacks are just “financial engineering”. Even worse, many bears will tell you that buybacks demonstrate a company’s a lack of strength in their fundamentals.

The truth is that both of these arguments have merit, depending on the specific situation in which they are used.

Take a company that’s in a highly cyclical industry, or one that doesn’t have any barriers to competition, and you’ll find a company that shouldn’t be buying back stocks. The same can be said with a company that has structural issues, or no confidence in being able to sustain a specific level of earnings.

A perfect example would be Weight Watchers International.  The company repurchased 18.3 million shares back in 2012 at $82 dollars per share, totaling $1.5 billion. Recently their stock closed at $8.19 however, and their entire market Is now under $500 million.

On the other side of the coin you have consumer staple companies, utilities and telecom companies, which have proven the stability of their business through several different market environments and built excellent barriers to competition. In this case, any extra cash they have could certainly be returned to shareholders in the form of buybacks.

This of course assumes that they aren’t over-leveraged or don’t have the option of investing that cash in an area with higher returns.

The simple fact is that the more stable an industry is, the more debt they can take on due to their ability to pay interest and principal at maturity, and also because of the confidence that the market has in them.

In short, all buybacks are definitely not alike. Before taking a side whether they are “good” or “bad”, it pays to dig deeper into the specific company and stock that you have in mind.

Filed under: Investing

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