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Takeaway: Companies in the S&P 500 spent $166.3 billion on share buybacks during the first quarter. That marked a new postrecession high.

Afraid Of All-Time Highs? WSJ Says Never Fear, Buybacks Are Here! - wsj never fear

The above is the latest permabull headline from the Wall Street Journal arguing that the buyback boom will live on and continue to stoke stocks.

Hang on a second...

That's worth parsing. The article suggests valuations are cheap and highlights academic studies which show shares of companies that buy back stock outperform the broader market by 12% over the next four years. 

so ... Can companies keep this buyback game going?

Good question. According to FactSet:

"Companies in the S&P 500 spent $166.3 billion on share buybacks during the first quarter, which marked a new postrecession high. Since 2005, only Q3 2007 produced a larger amount of buybacks ($178.5 billion). Dollar-value buybacks in Q1 represented a 15.1% increase in spending from the year-ago quarter, and a 15.6% jump from Q4. This breakout in the first quarter of the year comes amid somewhat of a stabilization period for buybacks since the middle of 2014. With that said, buyback spending still remained at very high levels for the index during this period."

 

Afraid Of All-Time Highs? WSJ Says Never Fear, Buybacks Are Here! - buyback S P

Consider peak buybacks in the context of net income and free cash flow...

FactSet writes:

"At the end of the first quarter, 146 companies in the S&P 500 spent more on buybacks in the trailing twelve months than they generated in earnings. This marked the seventh highest total going back to 2005... At the end of the first quarter, trailing twelve month buybacks made up 59.6% of free cash flow, which was a 6% increase year-overyear."

 

In other words, companies are increasingly buying back stock at the expense of long-term investment in their business. As Hedgeye U.S. Macro analyst Christian Drake points out on The Macro Show yesterday:

"If you have record repo activity at all-time highs in equities, pushing on 8 years into an economic expansion maybe you get paid in the short term. But what do you think of that in terms of long-term value creation?"

It's a good question to ponder as permabulls shout "buy, buy, buy" the all-time high.

in other words, we're sitting this one out.