By Lawrence A. Cunningham
Share buybacks are surprisingly controversial. A share buyback is when a company repurchases its own shares, which reduces its shares outstanding. By reducing the number of shares, buybacks effectively allocate a greater portion of corporate capital to remaining investors. For example, earnings per share increases.
Share buybacks add value to all corporate constituents — shareholders, employees, customers — when capital allocation follows two rules. One: buybacks are made with excess cash after the company has reinvested to maintain or grow the profitability of its current business, whether organically or through acquisitions. Two: buybacks are made only at share prices below business value—a corporation that overpays for anything, including its own shares, destroys corporate value.
Some critics protest buybacks for the wrong reasons. They complain of transferring corporate cash to shareholders when employees deserve a raise and customers a price cut. But this overlooks Rule One: skimping on employees and stiffing customers are anathema to any corporation and all its long-term shareholders, particularly stock pickers who construct a selective portfolio of high-quality stocks (called quality shareholders).
There are only two types of potential beneficiaries of so diverting cash to share buybacks. The first are transient (short-term) shareholders who don’t care about Rule Two: they are happy to cash in at an inflated price even if in the process the company destroys value for remaining shareholders, employees and customers. The second are managers who don’t care about either Rule because their pay is tied heavily to current stock price or current earnings per share.
Faithful managerial stewards who adhere to buyback Rules One and Two, however, add value for all corporate constituencies. Three of the best corporate managers of all time pioneered and perfected the proper execution of share buyback programs over several decades dating to the 1970s: Kay Graham of The Washington Post Co., Larry Tisch of Loews Corporation, and Henry Singleton of Teledyne. All ran decades-long, on-and-off, buyback programs based on these principles — buying only when price was low and there were no better uses of cash.
These managerial titans have some clear successors among today’s corporate leaders. Among active corporate repurchasers in recent years, the following companies boast high-quality, long-term shareholder bases, as compared to transients, who own shares fleetingly, and indexers, who own indiscriminately.
Bank of New York Mellon (NYS:BK)
Deckers Outdoor (NYS:DECK)
Home Depot (NYS:HD)
O’Reilly Automotive (NAS:ORLY)
O’Reilly is an auto parts retailer serving both professional and amateur mechanics. Founded in 1957 by the O’Reilly family, the company runs some 5,600 stores generating annual revenue around $10 billion. Since its 1993 IPO, it has maintained a strong culture of employee stock ownership. The current CEO since 2018 is Greg Johnson, who has been with the company since 2001. The business model is simple: buy new stores and increase sales at all stores. The result has been steady growth over two decades, with a major acquisition every two or three years and compound annual growth rate of 19%. The company offers products and services customers need and steadily adds new workers. Competitive advantages include economics of scale.
Company strengths include capital allocation that emphasizes buybacks. After deploying capital to primary uses of reinvestment and acquisition, many companies adopt a combination of dividends and buybacks. Not O’Reilly, which skips the dividends and goes straight to disciplined and opportunistic buybacks: when price is well below value. The effect is to increase the price-earnings ratio when low and help stabilize it when high. Such an approach reflects prudent capital allocation, increases per share value to shareholders, and maintains a more rational stock price overall. O’Reilly has maintained this on-and-off buyback program since 2011. QSs include Akre Capital, Edge Point Investment Group and T. Rowe Price.
CDW , a global leader in integrated IT solutions with annual revenue approaching $20 billion, traces its unlikely origins to a 1984 newspaper ad selling a used computer and printer. The company’s customer-centric business model positions itself as an extension of its customers’ IT staff to help access a vast selection of tech solutions. It presents itself to vendors as a partner facilitating access to a huge customer base. After ownership by private equity from 2007, it has been public since 2013, boasting steady growth in revenue and earnings with a strong runway for sustained growth, both organic and acquired. Competitive advantages include vast scale and scope and a performance driven-culture. The current CEO since 2018 is Christine A. Leahy, who has been with CDW since 2002.
The company adopts a classic approach to rational capital allocation: a clear statement of priorities, including reinvestment and acquisitions; a goal of steady annual dividend increases, and returning excess free cash flow through buybacks. The buyback program is clearly opportunistic and maps related pricing fluctuations from period to period. CDW boasts among the highest quality shareholder bases. QSs include Alliance Bernstein, Bessemer, Fenimore Asset Management, Lazard, Mawer Investment Management, Neuberger Berman, T. Rowe Price, Wedgewood Partners, and Wellington.
NVR is a regional homebuilder and mortgage banker with annual revenues of about $6 billion. Founded in 1980 and public since 1993 after a recession-induced bankruptcy, brands include Ryan Homes, which caters to first-time home buyers, and NV Homes and Heartland Homes, which include higher-end properties. The business model avoids costly and risky land development projects in favor of building pre-sold homes on individual lots acquired from developers on terms that minimize builder risk. Along with such a conservative strategy, NVR’s competitive advantages include relationships with developers and real estate professionals in the markets it serves.
The current CEO is Paul Seville, in the role since 2005, making him one of the more seasoned of today’s top executives . NVR has long boasted the highest listed stock price other than Berkshire Hathaway. NVR’s stock repurchase program dates to 1994 and is known to be among the most consistent and dedicated program of its kind. Current QSs include Broad Run, Capital Group, Diamond Hill Capital, Ensemble Capital, Giverny Capital, Smead Capital, Wellington and T. Rowe Price.
Share buybacks are only controversial because they can be misused. Done right, they are wins all around. Fortunately, Corporate America continues to have some great managers who understand this, and many quality shareholders who appreciate them for it.
Lawrence A. Cunningham is a professor at George Washington University, founder of the Quality Shareholders Group, and publisher, since 1997, of The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America. For updates on his research about quality shareholders, sign up here.