• [WEBCAST] Raoul Pal & Neil Howe: A Sobering U.S. Economic Reality Check

    Prepare your portfolio for “big picture” paradigm shifts with Real Vision co-founder Raoul Pal and Demography analyst Neil Howe. Watch the replay from this webcast.

Takeaway: The GOP’s tax cuts are pushing stock buybacks to record levels—for better or worse.

MARKET WATCH: What’s Happening? Apple’s new $100 billion stock buyback program has thrust the contentious practice back into the spotlight. While buybacks have been around for decades, the practice went into high gear following the Great Recession, when the proliferation of ultra-cheap money and dwindling investment opportunities persuaded managers to do (in effect) LBOs on their own firms. This year, flush with cash from the GOP’s recent tax bill, U.S. nonfinancial corporations may push total buybacks to over $1 trillion.

Our Take: Supporters say that stock buybacks offer a flexible, tax-efficient means for managers to pass value back to share owners. And the market rewards them. So why fix what ain’t broken? Critics complain that buybacks suppress investment, invite overleveraging, and reward managers for short-term, risk-averse performance. Who’s right? On balance, the downsides of buybacks likely outweigh the upsides. But policy solutions will be difficult since buybacks may be more a symptom of what ails our economy than an actual driver.

Everybody has a favorite explanation for the recent stock market selloff—which caused U.S. equities to post their worst weekly performance since March. There’s rising long-term rates. A looming U.S.-China trade war. And an overvalued tech sector.

Now there’s another explanation: missing stock buybacks. The market’s biggest buyers, U.S. corporations, aren’t buying right now. To keep the SEC happy, many companies try to avoid buying back their own shares in the blackout period weeks before reporting their quarterly earnings—an interval we might call a “buyback blackout.” According to some in the financial media, the recent downturn was triggered by this blackout. And according to others, the end of the blackout is the time to buy.

Does this theory have any merit? It is true that companies spend less on buybacks during the first month of each quarter, maybe as much as 50% less. It is not true, however, that the behavior is having any discernible effect on price. When we ran the numbers (see chart below), we found no quarterly pattern in recent years at all. In fact, the return in the first month of each quarter is pretty good; it’s the third month that stinks. Apparently, the market arbs out the quarterly buying pause pretty well. Lesson: Don’t try to market-time buybacks.

Taking Stock of Corporate Buybacks - chart2

Yet the very plausibility of this theory says at least one thing very important about buybacks. They are massive. So far this year, they are running at about 3% of GDP; or about double the value of all corporate dividend payments; or about half of all corporate earnings; or about the same as the federal deficit. That’s right: U.S. corporations are buying their own stock at about the same rate at which the world is buying U.S. Treasury debt.

It also shows how ready we are to add one more complaint to the long list of negatives we often hear about stock buybacks. But are buybacks really such a bad thing? And if so, why? Let’s examine.

THE RISE OF THE “BUYBACK ECONOMY”


U.S. companies have never been hungrier for their own shares. The latest data from Q2 2018 show that quarterly buyback activity was up 59% YoY for S&P 500 firms. Over the past four quarters, these firms have spent $646 billion on buybacks, an all-time record. Goldman Sachs projects that total U.S. stock buyback authorizations will reach a record-high $1 trillion this year, which would represent a 46% surge from 2017.

Incredibly, that would also represent nearly 5% of the entire S&P 500 market cap.

Taking Stock of Corporate Buybacks - chart3

Let’s put these figures into political perspective—and yes, these figures do move populists both on the left and the right. What if firms took all the money they’re now spending on buybacks and instead spent it on payroll? That would translate into roughly $10,000 per employee. Researchers at the Roosevelt Institute, a left-leaning think tank, estimate that McDonald’s buybacks could cover a $4,000 raise to every Mcee Dee worker. And the buybacks from Lowe’s, CVS, and Home Depot could cover a $18,000 raise to each one of their workers.

Who is spending the most on buybacks? Apple and its Big Tech peers. The dollar value of tech sector buybacks soared 130% YoY in Q2 2018. All in all, according to data compiled by Goldman Sachs, Big Tech accounts for a whopping 80% of the increase in S&P 500 buybacks so far this year. Apple alone is responsible for 24% of this growth, a share that will undoubtedly grow as its recently announced $100 billion buyback program takes effect. Other tech companies like Cisco (8%) and Oracle (6%) follow behind.

The recent rise in buyback activity isn’t just a temporary blip, but rather is the continuation of a longstanding trend.

For most of the 20th century, stock buybacks were a rarity. While not explicitly barred by regulators, buybacks were regarded as a form of market manipulation. (Reducing the number of outstanding shares was seen as a “deceptive” way to boost earnings per share—a judgment we will discuss below.) Most companies thus avoided buybacks for fear of attracting the attention of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

But amid the Reagan-era free-market zeitgeist, the SEC in 1982 passed Rule 10b-18, which enables companies to safely repurchase their own shares so long as the number of shares repurchased doesn’t exceed a predetermined limit (technically, that limit is 25% of the stock’s average trading volume over a seven-day period).

Since the passage of Rule 10b-18, companies have been buying back ever-more of their own shares. To gauge this trend’s magnitude, economist William Lazonick and journalist Ken Jacobson teamed up to analyze all 232 S&P 500 firms that have been on the index since at least the 1980s. The researchers found that these companies spent just 4% of their profits on buybacks between 1981 and 1983. These same companies spent 59% of their profits on buybacks between 2014 and 2016.

Our own analysis yields similar results. S&P 500 companies spend much more of their profits on buybacks today than they did two decades ago. In the first seven years of public S&P buyback data (1998 to 2004), buybacks averaged 32.2% of operating earnings. In the most recent seven years (2011 to 2018), they have averaged 53.7%. Over the entire period, the dividend share of operating earnings has remained unchanged. And unlike dividends, buybacks have kept pace with the enormous run-up in corporate profits since 2016.

Taking Stock of Corporate Buybacks - chart4

Taking Stock of Corporate Buybacks - chart5

To be sure, some observers say that the impact of buybacks has been overstated.

First, they say, companies aren’t just  buying back stock. They’re also issuing new stock—episodically in the form of new public issues and acquisitions paid with stock, and nearly all the time in the form of compensation (exercised warrants and options) to employees. So why focus only on buybacks?

Second, they remind us that the S&P 500 does not constitute all of corporate America. In fact, if we use market cap as a measuring stick, the S&P 500 makes up only a bit more than 60% of total U.S. corporate activity.

According to these skeptics, we shouldn’t make up our mind about buybacks before looking at net stock issuance across all public companies.

These are both valid points. So let’s broaden our focus accordingly. Here we look at all U.S. nonfinancial corporations (domestic only, using Fed Z.1 tabulations) over the past twenty-one years. And we look at every form of equity issuance and buyback.

Taking Stock of Corporate Buybacks - chart6

Let’s reflect first on the difference between buybacks and new equity issuance. Yes, it’s true that corporations issue lots of new equity each year (related mostly to compensation). In recent years, this total new issuance has been topping $100 billion per quarter. And back in the late 1990s and early aughts, it regularly exceeded total buybacks. But note also that these new issuances have been more than cancelled out by equity retirement due to mergers, exits, and bankruptcies.

Since Q1 1997, there have been only four net positive issuance quarters: Three right after recessions and one (Q1 2000) at the IPO peak of the dot-com bubble.  All other quarters have been negative. What’s more, even aside from buybacks these companies’ net equity issuance has been slightly negative in most quarters. So net equity issuance has actually been slightly more negative than the buyback totals—which doesn’t help the skeptics’ argument at all.

All told, since Q1 2005, the average quarterly net issuance has been exactly minus $100 billion, which is slightly higher than average buybacks ($89 billion). Put differently, since the start of G.W. Bush’s second term, U.S. nonfinancial corporations have re-absorbed $5.4 trillion of their own stock, of which $4.8 trillion is accounted for by buybacks.

The equivalent figure for just the S&P 500 is not published, but it can be inferred by looking at the difference between the growth of the S&P price index and the growth of the S&P total market cap. We estimate cumulative net negative issuance of about $2.5 trillion.

Now let’s look back again at all U.S. nonfinancial corporations and recast these numbers: first, as a share of pretax profits; and second, as a share of GDP. Here we again see a generally rising trend in buybacks—along with the declining trend (relatively speaking) in net fixed investment. Before the recession of 2001, net capex substantially exceeded buybacks; today it doesn’t.

Taking Stock of Corporate Buybacks - chart7

Taking Stock of Corporate Buybacks - chart8

WHAT’S DRIVING THE SURGE IN BUYBACKS?


It’s no wonder we’re seeing unprecedented buyback activity. The conditions that make stock buybacks economically viable have flourished in recent years—especially since the Great Recession.

To understand why, let’s think about the two basic choices that every firm needs to make on an ongoing basis. First, what are you going to do with your after-tax cash flow: invest it or redistribute it to stock owners? And second, are you going to augment cash flow by more borrowing or are you going to diminish it by redeeming debt—will you lever up or lever down?

Over the last fifteen years, it is fair to say that each of these choices has tilted management to favor buybacks. You’ll invest the cash if you can get a favorable ROR on the capex. But declining capital productivity and growing market concentration (see: “Declining Business Dynamism: A Visual Guide”) have recently discouraged this choice. Both old-economy dinosaurs and asset-lite hi-tech powerhouses are generating large returns with no obvious investable projects remaining “within their moats.” This explains why total corporate capex has been anemic despite record-low interest rates.

You’ll also invest the cash if you feel that stock owners trust you to open “new markets.” But today’s stock owners have no such trust. The recent trend in management philosophy and market pricing has been to reward firms that stick strictly to their “core competence” and punish the rest. Unless you’re Warren Buffett, don’t even think about crossing industry boundaries. The big LBO boom of 2005-07 was enough to remind all managers to cash out and return all less-than-fully productive assets—unless they wanted to become a takeover target.

More broadly, the growing investor insistence on maximizing current return on equity and assets pointed directly toward value metrics, like EPS or SPS, that were already being used to incentivize managers. How easy, then, to get them to do more of the same: borrow more, buy back more, and think tactically (i.e., short term)? That’s how you get rewarded. Along the way, it may help to brag about how much more you think your firm is worth than the marginal investor says it is worth. That’s how you show conviction.

And speaking of borrowing, there’s one more thing that happened after 2005, and especially after 2010: record-low interest rates, which have encouraged firms to lever up their capital structure, enlarging their cash flow, at the same time they are stepping up their buybacks. Indeed, many firms are explicitly borrowing in order to finance buybacks.

To be sure, some of these macroeconomic drivers have been waning over the last two or three years. Valuations are getting lofty. Complaints about managerial “short-termism” are growing. More firms have embarked on capital deepening. And interest rates are starting to rise. Why, then, haven’t we seen buyback activity recede? Two words: tax cuts.

Experts say that, in total, the GOP’s tax overhaul will liberate around $3 trillion in profits that have been “stranded” in foreign markets. A Bloomberg analysis estimates that as much as 60% of this cash will go to shareholders (via buybacks and dividends), compared to just 15% that will go to employees (via bonuses and raises). Other surveys by Morgan Stanley and Just Capital cite similar figures.

Just how much of the recent rise in stock buybacks can be attributed to tax cuts? JPMorgan Chase attempts to answer that question by decomposing the expected 2018 YoY increase in buybacks into a tax component and an earnings component. The firm expects fully two-thirds of the growth in buybacks this year to come from repatriated profits, with the remaining one-third coming from stronger earnings.

ARGUMENTS IN FAVOR OF BUYBACKS


As stock buybacks have grown in popularity, they’ve attracted their fair share of critics. But before going there, let’s first examine the arguments in favor of buybacks.

Buybacks are the most tax-efficient way to return earnings to owners. We’ll start with perhaps the strongest pro-buyback argument, which is that buybacks incur a smaller tax liability than dividends. Dividends suffer from the curse of immediate double taxation—they’re taxed once as corporate earnings and again as shareholder income as soon as they are received. Stock buybacks, on the other hand, are taxed once as corporate earnings, but thereafter impose a milder and less immediate tax burden—if any burden at all—on stock owners.

Let’s start with the reasonable assumption that roughly half of all U.S. corporate stock is held in taxable accounts (taxable either to U.S. or to foreign governments). In that case a dividend automatically generates an immediate tax liability on half of the dividend payout, either at ordinary or “qualified” rates in the case of the U.S. tax code. The same distribution via a buyback is very unlikely to generate a similar stockowner tax liability—for two reasons. First, only a small share of the owners (those who choose to sell) are involved; and second, because these sales are voluntary, they are more likely to involve tax-exempt funds that aren’t penalized for turnover.

What’s more, since the sale constitutes a one-time capital gain to the owner, it represents the return of earnings that have been accruing over many years. Compared to a quarterly dividend, therefore, the buyback seller succeeds in effectively deferring receipt over the duration of his ownership. Which means that, even if the capital gain is taxable at the same rate as a dividend, its effective rate is reduced.

The fact that some firms don’t pay dividends should not blind us to the fact that stock prices are always supposed to reflect the present value of future payouts to owners. But thanks to buybacks, these payouts may never be in the form of dividends. Alphabet and Amazon have never issued dividends. But Alphabet is slowly ramping up its buyback program and Amazon promises that it may implement such a program at any time. That, surely, has to reassure investors. Everyone knows that Apple has a modest (1.3%) dividend yield. What everyone doesn’t know is that, if you count dividends and buybacks together, Apple has redistributed cash over the last 12 months more like a utility (6.5%).

Buybacks offer companies more flexibility than dividends. Firms like buybacks not only because they’re more tax-efficient, but also because they’re more flexible. Dividends are great. But historically, for most established firms, dividends have come to represent a sort of covenant with the investor: In return for your confidence in us, the regularity of our dividend will reassure you of our long-term viability. It’s not the same as the contract that underlies a bond coupon, of course, but there is an element of obligation—so much so that stable high-dividend stocks (like utilities) are often called “bond proxies.”

When a company announces a quarterly dividend schedule, it’s thus painful to reverse course. Even in the event of a bad quarter, the company would be hesitant to reduce or suspend a dividend payment for fear of spooking investors. When firms do opt to cut their dividends, their stock price usually suffers. Consider General Electric, whose shares slid 7% in 2017 after the company announced it would be halving its dividend payments.

It's not just that reversing course on dividends is a bad look. It’s also that investors have come to regard their dividend income as sacrosanct. For an investor who treats dividend income as interest to be reinvested into his account, or who attempts to live off of that interest in retirement, a change in the dividend payout structure can be a confusing and unwelcome development.

Buybacks, on the other hand, can be timed to coincide with quarters in which the company expects a healthy cash flow. Oftentimes, a buyback announcement doesn’t come with any sort of timeline—meaning that companies could slow down the pace of buybacks if need be without attracting much attention. In short, the timing of dividends is driven by investors while the timing of buybacks is driven by management.

Companies and investors both want buybacks. We’ll call this the libertarian argument. These are mutually beneficial transactions between consenting adults. Companies want buybacks. That much is clear, given the recent rise in buyback activity. Investors seem to want them as well: They could easily pull their money out of companies that spend heavily on buybacks. Instead, they opt in.

The best evidence that investors are in favor of buybacks is the fact that share prices usually rise after a buyback is announced. In theory, there is no obvious reason why this should happen. When a company buys back its own stock, it reduces the number of outstanding shares on the market, which boosts earnings per share. But that increase in earnings is perfectly offset by a decrease in book value. The pie gets divided into fewer slices, but the size of the whole pie shrinks by a proportional amount. To the extent that price per share rises after a buyback, it is because investors are betting that the company made a good decision—in other words, that it bought low.

Buybacks are an efficient use of capital. Fans see buybacks as a form of trickle-down investment that enables cash to be reallocated to its most productive use. This is how it is supposed to work: Companies that would otherwise be sitting on piles of cash (or spending it unproductively) can use buybacks to pass that cash back to shareholders. Those shareholders can then invest the cash in companies that will spend it productively on new projects. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon loves buybacks because “when a company cannot use its capital, it gives it back to shareholders, who then redeploy it to a higher and better use.”

In theory, this logic makes sense. If a company was going to hoard its cash anyway, why not allow the company to pass that cash along to someone who may put it to productive use? Any economist would call that rational behavior. Likewise, the decision to borrow in order to finance buybacks is rational at a time when rates are low and money is cheap.

Business leaders like Warren Buffett would also say that buybacks are an efficient use of capital so long as companies get a good “deal.” In Buffett’s words, “When stock can be bought below a business’s value it is probably the best use of cash.” Importantly, buybacks are a way for CEOs to make a public bet that the stock will rise—which is a self-fulfilling prophecy in that it signals to investors that the CEO is optimistic about the firm’s prospects.

ARGUMENTS AGAINST BUYBACKS


OK, so much for why companies perform buybacks—and why some people say there’s nothing wrong with them. So what do the critics say?

Buybacks are not an efficient use of capital. Critics generally concede that buybacks may be a tax-efficient and flexible way to distribute cash to owners in a low-interest-rate environment. Where they disagree is the assessment that the magnitude of this distribution—much of it leveraged—makes rational sense either for the individual firm or for the economy as a whole.

What the market “wants,” say the critics, is what managers tell the market to look for—and increasingly managers are telling the market to focus on short-term goals, like “making earnings” rather than changing the world. This attitude feeds an insatiable appetite for buybacks. Rising EPS can signal to investors that a company’s bet on itself was a wise move, while falling EPS can signal the opposite. And what’s an easy way to grow your EPS? Buy back even more stock. It’s a positive feedback loop: Buybacks beget more buybacks.

Along the way, like Phileas Fogg feeding the ship’s bulwarks into the furnace to keep the turbines going, firms gradually cannibalize any capacity for long-term growth or innovation. Indeed, appetite may the wrong word. Corporate “anorexia” may be a more apt description of firms that are famished by managers who jettison everything extraneous to short-term performance. Some buyback defenders may agree but claim it’s the investors who no longer trust managers with long-term performance. Buyback critics say most managers play along without objection.

Companies have certainly mastered the game. In Q2 2018, Southwest Airlines used buybacks to grow its earnings 2.4% YoY even as its net income fell over the same period. Similarly, buybacks in both Q1 2018 and Q2 2018 boosted Cisco’s EPS by 2 cents. Both times, the company beat consensus estimates by 1 cent. On the whole, in the last two quarters, the share of S&P 500 companies that beat earnings estimates hit 78% and 80% respectively—both record highs. These were the very same quarters in which U.S. stock buyback activity also hit record highs. Coincidence?

These aren’t isolated cases. In sum, 13D Research reports that buybacks have accounted for more than 40% of the growth in U.S. earnings per share since 2009, including an astonishing 72% of the growth since 2012.

But it gets worse. Not only do buybacks encourage managers to disinvest in the future to meet short-term performance goals, they also encourage managers to borrow to finance the buybacks. Such borrowing further imperils the firm’s future by raising both debt service costs and default risk.

Buybacks have helped push nonfinancial corporate debt to $6.3 trillion as of Q2 2018—which is a record high as a share of GDP. Thanks to lower interest rates, to be sure, the debt-service cost still seems affordable. But that could change quickly as inflation premia and risk perceptions start rising. How many firms have the cash needed to deal with rising rates—and, eventually, an economic downturn? Fewer than one might think, especially if you omit the top handful of companies on the market. The cash-to-debt ratio for U.S. speculative-grade borrowers now stands at just 12%, lower than the ratio at the height of the financial crisis (14% in 2008).

Managers who borrow to finance buybacks are essentially doing a leveraged buyout of their own company. And they may be doing so in such magnitude that it puts the whole economy at risk.

Buybacks are an agency problem. CEOs have another good reason to spend heavily on buybacks even if it means racking up a ton of corporate debt. Most of the time, it boosts their own compensation.

Research by Arthur J. Gallagher and Co. reveals that earnings (which of course can be gamed by buybacks) figure prominently in executive compensation programs at large S&P 500 firms. Of all such companies that offer short-term incentive plans, 38% base these plans at least in part on EPS. Earnings even figure prominently in long-term incentive programs (LTIPs): More than one-quarter of all LTIP providers use EPS.

Given that executive compensation is closely tied to earnings, companies have been incentivized to juice their EPS with a timely buyback announcement. Consider Humana, which in late 2014 announced a $500 million buyback program that enabled the company to beat its EPS target by 1 cent, triggering higher pay for top managers.

That’s not the only way corporate executives make windfall gains from buybacks. Research conducted by the office of SEC Commissioner Robert Jackson Jr. shows that executives are engaging in an insider trading-like practice by which they authorize a buyback program that inflates share prices and then turn around and sell their own shares at a premium.

In a June speech on the subject, Jackson pointed out that, in the first eight days after a buyback announcement, insiders sell an average of $500,000 worth of shares per day—more than five times the normal daily average. This behavior calls into question the argument that buybacks create long-term shareholder value. If they did, why would insiders be heavy sellers? And who probably knows more about eventual post-buyback price performance, the insiders or the retail investors?

Taking Stock of Corporate Buybacks - chart9

If buybacks were truly about maximizing shareholder return and betting on your own “undervalued” stock, then we would expect companies to buy low and sell high. But that is not, typically, how managers pull the trigger. As Dan McCrum observes in the Financial Times, “If a company has more cash than it needs, and nothing better to invest in, it should consider whether buying its own stock is a good investment. Yet the time when companies have plenty of spare cash tends to be when business is good and shares are overvalued.” This theme is evident in the historical data on stock buybacks, which show that buybacks plummeted during the last two recessions (when companies should have been buying low).

This is the very definition of what’s known among economists as an “agency problem,” whereby an agent supposedly acting in the interest of another party acts instead in his own self-interest. Economists agree that agency conflicts thrive in an environment of asymmetrical information—that is, when the agent is an “insider” and the owner is not.

Senator Elizabeth Warren observed in a recent interview that “stock buybacks create a sugar high for the corporations. It boosts prices in the short run, but the real way to boost the value of a corporation is to invest in the future, and they are not doing that.” What she could have added is that it’s the insiders who are feasting most off the high and it’s the investor at large who bears most of the post-high crash.

Buybacks reflect an economywide dearth of investment opportunities. Another common complaint is that buybacks divert money that could be invested meaningfully into capex. Last December, the chief economist at Amherst Pierpoint Securities famously promised that the GOP tax cuts would act as “rocket fuel” for corporate investment. Not so much. Since the tax cuts were announced, spending on buybacks has risen nearly twice as fast as spending on capex.

But are buybacks truly to blame for the recent decline in U.S. business investment? That may be too harsh. It’s more accurate to say that buybacks reflect a problem in today’s economy—which is that a growing number of businesses don’t see much worth investing in. Buybacks simply give managers an easy alternative: Booting the funds back to investors.

These flagging animal spirits align with the broader challenge of declining U.S. business dynamism which we touched on earlier. What exactly is suppressing investment? It differs by company. For some natural monopolies emerging in high tech, it may be an asset-lite business model that enables industry dominance with little capex (see: “Investing in the Intangible Economy”). For other giants with growing market power in more traditional industries, it may be their ability to maximize profits by limiting capacity. And for all the new startups and also-rans, it may be the utter futility of going anywhere near the “kill zone” of industry-leading incumbents.

It’s revealing that many companies, even after buybacks, are sitting on lots of cash—even aside from the not-yet-repatriated treasure troves abroad. The total value of liquid assets held domestically by U.S. nonfinancial corporations has ballooned to $2.5 trillion as of Q2 2018, nearly double where it stood at the end of 2008. This cash stash has grown even faster than economic output over that time, swelling to 12.1% of GDP (up from 9.6% at the end of 2008). Some say hopefully that firms are hoarding cash in preparation for an innovation boom just around the corner. Really? With productivity growth sagging and the end of the business cycle approaching? More likely, this is a telltale sign that both buybacks and hoarding point to a broader competitiveness slowdown in the economy.

WHAT COMES NEXT?


While the ranks of supporters remain strong, a growing number of policymakers are waking up to the possible negative effects of buybacks. What is likely to be done? Regulatory action is one possibility. In his June speech, SEC Commissioner Robert Jackson Jr. called for an open comment period “to reexamine our rules in this area to make sure they protect employees, investors, and communities given today’s unprecedented volume of buybacks.” Legislative action is another option. Earlier this year, U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) introduced the Reward Work Act, which would repeal SEC Rule 10b-18. To be sure, Baldwin faces an uphill battle until the Democrats take control of Congress.

In the meantime, certain targeted middle-ground policies could be implemented to prevent the sorts of abuses that critics complain about. Reducing or eliminating executive bonuses based on “per share” metrics may be one step in the right direction. What about the rampant practice of insiders flipping their shares for profit immediately after a buyback? Policymakers could look overseas for inspiration: In the European Union, United Kingdom, and Japan, insiders face categorical restrictions on trading shares during a buyback program.

But these fixes may be mostly cosmetic. Policies that remove the temptation for agency misalignment would be helpful. But they would do little to address the bigger challenge of weakening business dynamism and competitiveness. On this front, the buyback binge is mostly a harbinger, not a driver. Some politicians (like Senator Warren) seem to favor “forcing” corporations against their will to spend on capital goods or payroll rather than hand retained earnings back to owners. But how can this possibly make sense? Ultimately what we need is not so much an economy in which buybacks are illegal but an economy in which buybacks are unwanted.

We have a long way to go.

In all likelihood, buybacks will not be on the chopping block until the anti-business populists (on the left or right) get their chance to call the shots. And that won’t happen until the next recession hits, at which point there won’t be many buybacks to complain about. Suddenly, in the midst of a bear market, we will hear CEOs struggle to explain why their own firms are no longer a bargain. Buybacks will no longer be happening—but, sadly, for all the worst reasons.