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Posts Tagged ‘Share buy-back’

Empirical Finance Research Blog has a review of a new paper, Repurchases, Reputation, and Returns, which finds that long-run stock returns are higher for companies announcing buybacks that had substantially completed a previous buyback. In other words, companies with a track record for following through on announced buybacks enjoy higher returns following a subsequent buyback announcement than companies that did not follow through on a previously announced buyback. While that might seem obvious, the paper makes two observations that we find particularly interesting in the context of our investment strategy:

  1. Past buyback completion rates are predictive of future buyback completion rates.
  2. Stocks with high completion rates but low stock returns following previous buybacks enjoy abnormally large returns following a subsequent buyback announcement.

It’s worth remembering that a buyback announcement does not bind a company to undertake a buyback, a situation we encountered recently: RACK suspends buyback and enters agreement to acquire Silicon Graphics; Greenbackd exits position. Companies frequently fail to follow through on announced repurchase plans. Empirical Finance Research cites a 1998 study by Stephens and Weisbach that found that firms on average repurchase only about 80% of the sum announced.

Empirical Finance Research summarizes the paper as follows:

This author measures the level of completion of previous buybacks, as measured by the shares bought as a fraction of the amount specified in the announcement, then uses this to explain how well various stocks do after subsequent buyback announcements. What she finds is that companies that had low completion rates on a previous share buyback experience much lower returns upon the announcement of another buyback. She interprets this as evidence of the company’s credibility, that investors don’t really believe a company about a share buyback when the company has failed to complete one in the past.

First the author confirms that past buyback completion rates are predictive of future buyback completion rates. Next she shows that the stock returns to a company making a buyback announcement are much higher for those with high past completion rates. Companies in the 90th percentile of past completion rate see returns 2.5% higher than those in the 10th percentile of past completion rate in the three days after a the new announcement.

Despite the size of these returns, this isn’t a very good trading strategy, because buyback announcements are clearly unexpected. However, in the next part of the paper the author finds that long-run returns are also reliably higher for repeat buyback companies with high past completion rates. Two year returns are 13.64% for those companies with above-median past completion rates versus 7.43% for those below the median. We should be leery of these results, however as they are not statistically significant.

Next the author splits her sample of repeat buyback companies into quintiles based on the return to the stock during the previous buyback. The two-year abnormal returns to companies in the lowest quintile (those with the lowest returns after their last buyback) are 17.33% after their subsequent buyback. This result is very statistically significant too.

But if we split this quintile in half based on past completion rates, and buy only those stocks with above-median past completion rate, the returns explode to 27.13% for the two year period.

Empirical Research Blog’s takeaway?

The value of this paper is not necessarily in a specific investment strategy but rather in the insight it provides in to a trading strategy we already knew about. I would be hesitant to implement this stand-alone for the practical difficulty in doing so. But any trading strategy that already uses share buybacks as a signaling factor might benefit from an augmentation that accounts for past buyback completion rate.

(Emphasis added)

Quite.

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Warren Buffett took the opportunity Friday to lend his considerable intellectual weight to the debate about buy backs, saying, “I think if your stock is undervalued, significantly undervalued, management should look at that as an alternative to every other activity.”

We’ve been banging the drum for buy backs quite a bit recently. We wrote on Friday that they represent the lowest risk investment for any company with undervalued stock and we’ve written on a number of other occasions about their positive effect on per share value in companies with undervalued stock.

In a Nightly Business Report interview with Susie Gharib, Buffett discussed his view on stock buy backs:

Susie Gharib: What about Berkshire Hathaway stock? Were you surprised that it took such a hit last year, given that Berkshire shareholders are such buy and hold investors?

Warren Buffett: Well most of them are. But in the end our price is figured relative to everything else so the whole stock market goes down 50 percent we ought to go down a lot because you can buy other things cheaper. I’ve had three times in my lifetime since I took over Berkshire when Berkshire stock’s gone down 50 percent. In 1974 it went from $90 to $40. Did I feel badly? No, I loved it! I bought more stock. So I don’t judge how Berkshire is doing by its market price, I judge it by how our businesses are doing.

SG: Is there a price at which you would buy back shares of Berkshire? $85,000? $80,000?

WB: I wouldn’t name a number. If I ever name a number I’ll name it publicly. I mean if we ever get to the point where we’re contemplating doing it, I would make a public announcement.

SG: But would you ever be interested in buying back shares?

WB: I think if your stock is undervalued, significantly undervalued, management should look at that as an alternative to every other activity. That used to be the way people bought back stocks, but in recent years, companies have bought back stocks at high prices. They’ve done it because they like supporting the stock…

SG: What are your feelings with Berkshire. The stock is down a lot. It was up to $147,000 last year. Would you ever be opposed to buying back stock?

WB: I’m not opposed to buying back stock.

You can see the interview with Buffett here (via New York Times’ Dealbook article Buffett Hints at Buyback of Berkshire Shares)

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We’re often banging on about stock buy backs to anyone who’ll listen. We like them because they represent the lowest risk investment for any company with undervalued stock. The S&P500 peaked at 1,576.09 on October 11, 2007. It’s now off a lazy 47% to 827.50. It’s probably fair to say that the average stock is better value now than it was before the financial crisis began (Note: We are not saying that we think the average stock is good value, just that it’s better value than it was 15 months ago). One might think that this relatively better value would result in a surge in buy back activity. One would be wrong (click to enlarge):

buy-backs

(Source: Bloomberg via Market Folly).

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A stock buy-back is a great way for a deeply undervalued company to quickly increase its per share value. After identifying an undervalued asset situation, we look through the company’s filings to see if it has any existing plans authorizing it to buy-back its stock. On the rare occasions when we do locate such plans, we are often struck by (a) how few shares the company is authorized to buy back and (b) how few of the shares the company has actually bought back. InFocus Corporation (NASDAQ:INFS), which we posted about on Friday, is a classic example of this phenomenon.

INFS is trading at a big discount to its liquidation value, it has heaps of cash on hand and no debt, all of which makes it a prime candidate to undertake a big buy-back. Given the substantial discount to its current asset backing, any shares bought back at these levels have a huge positive effect on its per share value. It has just initiated a buy-back plan to repurchase over a three-year period up to 4M shares out of 40.7M on issue. As of September 30, the company had repurchased only 50,000 shares at an average price of $1.53 per share. 50,000 shares is simply too little to have any meaningful impact on the company’s value. We’d argue that even 4M (less than 10% of the outstanding common stock) isn’t enough. Why? Let’s look at what happens if the company repurchases many more shares, say 50% of its issued stock.

In our last blog post, we argued that INFS had a liquidation value of around $1.15 per share, 70% higher than its Friday close of $0.67. The company has cash and equivalents of around $55M and no debt as the summary financials demonstrate (the “Carrying” column shows the assets as they are carried in the financial statements, and the “Liquidating” column shows our estimate of the value of the assets in a liquidation):

Before

before-infs-summary

After

If INFS was to repurchase 50% of its stock (20M of its 40.7M shares currently on issue) at $0.67, it would cost INFS only $13.4M, leaving it with nearly $42M in cash on hand:

after-infs-summaryAfter the buy back, INFS’s per share liquidating value increases from $1.15 to $1.61 (a 40% increase).

There are very few investment opportunities that so quickly increase a company’s per share value. Given that management should know the company’s value better than the value of any other investment opportunity, it is also the most assured way of increasing a company’s per share value. There is simply no better way for an undervalued company to invest its excess cash than in its own stock.

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