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公司回购股票真能推高股价吗?可能只是让高管发了财

Shawn Tully 2019年03月19日

SEC的研究发现,高管策划了短期行情并通过套现从中受益,但股价很快就会由涨转跌。

图片来源:Feodora Chiosea—Getty Images/iStockphoto

反对股票回购的人有了强大的新盟友:美国证券交易委员会(SEC)。近几周,革新派参议员伯尼·桑德斯(佛蒙特州,独立议员)、查克·舒默(纽约州,民主党)和通常都支持企业界的佛罗里达州共和党参议员马克·卢比奥开始联手指责热火朝天的股票回购扼杀了就业机会并扩大了贫富差距。现在,马里兰州民主党参议员克里斯·范·霍林也表示,美国公司CEO滥用回购,目的是以高价大量抛售股票。

去年12月,范·霍林要求SEC审查公司内部人士是否借回购来提高自身薪酬,而非用这些资金来增强公司实力并创造就业。SEC主席罗伯特·J·杰克森今年3月6日致信范·霍林称,SEC的广泛研究显示公司宣布回购后,数量异常多的高管就会在第二天抛售股票。杰克森指出,回购公告表明管理层认为自家公司股价过低,这会让第二天的股价平均反弹2.5%左右。他写道:“这就产生了回购动力来自内部人士自身利益,而非投资者、员工和社区长期需求的风险。”

给范·霍林的信并非杰克森首次敲打回购。去年6月就此发言时,杰克森就曾质疑董事会和CEO选择回购的原因“是正确使用公司资金”,还是要“牺牲股东的利益来赚上一笔”。对杰克森来说,回购的最大弊病就在于“切断了薪酬和绩效之间的联系”。

令人意外的是,SEC的研究发现虽然高管显然策划了短期行情并通过套现从中受益,但股价很快就会由涨转跌——宣布回购90天后,这些公司的股票平均跑输大盘8%。

SEC对内部人士在宣布回购后立即抛售股票的自由加以限制可能是一项好政策,但关键问题在于SEC会不会加入民主、共和两党议员反对回购的行列,并对回购实加新的限制。有这种可能。杰克森主席目前的态度是,在向自家公司再投资还是向股东返回现金的重大事务上,CEO的判断基础可能不是怎样做最有利于公司,而是提高自己的报酬。

这样的观点令人怀疑。CEO等高管的薪酬大多来自股票,主要是限售股和股票期权,后者一般需要4年或更长的时间才能套现。高管也许有借回购行情抛售股票的动机,但如果他们持有并将系统性抛售的非限售股远远多于他们随后通过奖励而获得的股份,他们就不会去削弱公司实力并压低随后几年的股价。SEC写给范·霍林的信并未列举各位高管在回购时以内部人士身份抛售的股票金额,或者用这个数字和他们仍持有的股票进行比较,包括尚未套现的股票奖励和非限售股。

如果随后5-6年里CEO通过提升本公司股票价值所得到的收益确实能超过短暂回购行情带来的套现收入,那他们就应该把资金用于回报率尽可能高的领域,至少中期内应该如此。国会和SEC打算限制股票回购前应该考虑一下这种非常有可能出现的情况,而且限制回购的政策存在造成意外负面影响的风险。

对CEO和他手下的高管来说,抬高股价的首要杠杆是提升每股收益。主导美国经济的是成熟的钢铁、汽车和包装产品巨头,它们创造的利润远远超过它们能在盈利前提下对新工厂、仓库、晶圆厂和实验室的再投资,就连真正赚了大钱的企业,比如苹果公司和微软现在都属于这个行列。这些大企业以及其他许多公司都得在再投资和回购之间做出艰难选择,而它们向股东返还现金时动力十足的原因是,如果一家公司将很大一部分利润用于再投资并获得不那么有竞争力的回报,比如空间狭小的老式业务或者昂贵的收购,其每股收益就会比向股东分红,或者新的流行方式,也就是股票回购所实现的每股收益低得多。就像刚才所说,推动股价上涨的是不断提高的每股收益,让CEO通过期权和限售股发财的也是它。

简而言之,股票回购本身不会提升每股收益或股价,但不向股东返回现金则可能会“要人命”。

思维试验

让我们看看两家公司的情况,一家名为Superb Steward Corp.,另一家是Lacking, Inc.。它们都有标普500指数成分股公司那样的规模——总股本10亿股,市值500亿美元,股价均为50美元。去年两家公司均盈利25亿美元,则每股收益都是2.50美元,市盈率均为20倍。两公司都将40%的利润用于分红,区别在于Superb Steward将另外30%利润通过回购回馈给了股东,保留了30%的利润。Lacking则将未分红盈利,也就是全部60%利润用于再投资。

对它们以及整个股市来说,资本成本,或者说投资者可以从风险水平相当的股票和债券中得到的有竞争力的回报率为5%,这是“实际水平”,也就是剔除了通胀影响的回报率(相当于20倍市盈率的倒数)。加上2%的通胀率,投资者预期的总回报率为7%。大家也许已经想到了,Superb Steward在分配利润方面做得非常好。它用于再投资的30%收益实现了5%的增长,有竞争力,而且它意识到无法为另外30%利润找到可盈利的投资目标。这样,Superb Steward每年的利润增速为3.5%(30%的利润获利5%,增幅为1.5%,再加上2%的通胀率)。它的分红增速为2%,另外回购1.5%的股票(25亿美元利润的30%为7500万美元,占其500亿美元市值的1.5%)。六年后,也就是到2026年初,Superb Steward的总利润将增长23%(每年增3.5%),达到30.8亿美元,而股本将减少9%左右,降至9.13亿股(每年因回购减少1.5%)。在二者共同作用下,Superb Steward的每股收益将升至3.37美元,保持20倍市盈率不变,其股价将上涨35%,从50美元升至67.40美元。

顺便说一下,如果Superb Steward为用于回购股票的30%利润找到了好的投资目标,结果也将完全一样。这就是回购本身不会提高每股收益和股价的原因。将股本保持在10亿股刚好抵销了利润再投资所实现的额外收益。

与之相反,Lacking认为自己找到了很棒的目标,可以将分红后的全部60%利润投入到基本业务中。但Lacking是一家骄傲自大又趋于老化的大公司,它的企业文化乐于在乏味的基础行业中建设新工厂,并通过兼并来扩大规模。该公司CEO要打造一个帝国,他对规模的重视程度超过了其他所有东西。因此,Lacking用于再投资的利润仅实现了1%的实际回报率,虽然仍为正回报,但远低于5%的市场最低水平。六年过后,Lacking的利润年增速为2.6%(60%的利润乘以1%的实际回报率,结果为0.6%,再加上2%的通胀率)。这样,到2024年该公司利润将增长16.6%,从25亿美元升至29亿。每股收益为2.9美元(因为总股本仍为10亿股)。按同样的20倍市盈率计算,其股价为58美元。

Superb Steward的每股收益和股价增速是Lacking的两倍,一个是35%,另一个是17%。到2025年初,Superb Steward的股价将比Lacking高16%以上。从现在到2025年这段时间里,Superb Steward CEO展现出的水平,也就是保留利润,只在回报率高时才动用所带来的期权和限售股要比Lacking那位“烧利润”大户多好几百万股。

对整个经济来说,是囤积利润好,还是把它用出去好呢?在上述六年时间里,Superb Steward将50亿美利润重新投入到经营中,它的业务增长迅速,创造了就业并实现了高回报。它又向股东回馈了50亿美元。受此影响,养老金、基金和个人有余力将资金投入快速增长而且急需资金的领域,造就出未来的苹果公司和亚马逊,而后者用新资金实现了有竞争力的回报,并创造出大量就业机会。

Lacking把100亿美元,也就是全部未分红利润投入增速堪堪赶上通胀的业务,而且有可能减少了就业。我给SEC的备忘录是:不受限制的金融市场或许是将资金导向最佳用途的最理想“机器”。给议员和监管者的备忘录是:正确的解决方案可能是不要去人为地“换挡”。(财富中文网)

译者:Charlie

审校:夏林

The forces battling against share buybacks have a powerful new ally: The Securities and Exchange Commission. In the past few weeks,team of progressive Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) have locked arms with normally pro-business Republican Marco Rubio of Florida to denounce the boom in repurchases for killing jobs and spreading income inequality. Now, Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md) is claiming that America’s CEOs and other top executives are abusing buybacks to dump shares at inflated prices.

In December, Van Hollen requested that the SEC review whether insiders are deploying repurchases to boost their compensation instead of using those dollars to make the investments that strengthen their companies and create new jobs. In a March 6 letter to Van Hollen, SEC chairman Robert J. Jackson wrote that the agency had performed an extensive study revealing that when companies announce buybacks, an unusually large number of executives sell shares in the days that follow. Jackson noted that a buyback announcement signals that management believes its shares are too cheap, causing stocks to rally, on average, by about 2.5% in the days that follow. Executives, says Jackson, pounce on that bounce to sell shares. “That creates the risk that insiders’ own interests––rather than the long-term needs of investors, employees and communities––are driving buybacks,” wrote Jackson.

The Van Hollen letter isn’t the first time Jackson skewered repurchases. In a June speech on the topic, Jackson questioned whether boards and CEOs are choosing buybacks because they’re “the right thing to do with the company’s capital,” or instead to “pocket some cash at the expense of shareholders.” For Jackson, buybacks are guilty of nothing less than “breaking the pay-performance link.”

Surprisingly, the SEC study found that while top managers apparently orchestrate, and benefit from, a short-term pop to cash out, the gains quickly reverse: Ninety-days after the announcement, the company’s shares underperform the market on average by 8%.

It may be sound policy for the SEC to restrict insiders’ freedom to sell shares right after a buyback announcement. But the crucial issue is whether the SEC will join bi-partisan buyback foes in Congress, and move to impose new restrictions on repurchases. It’s possible. Chairman Jackson is now taking the position that CEOs are likely making crucial decisions on whether to reinvest in the business or return cash to shareholders based not on what’s best for the company, but on boosting their own pay.

That view is questionable. CEOs and other top managers get most of their comp in equity awards, chiefly restricted shares and stock options. Those grants typically vest over four or more years. C-suite executives might have an incentive to cash out using buybacks that deliver a quick bump, but weaken the enterprise and depress the share price in the years to come, if they held––and were systematically selling––a lot more unrestricted stock than they hold in equity awards they’ll collect in the future. The SEC letter to Van Hollen does not cite the dollar amounts of the buyback-related insider sales for individual executives, or compare them to the trove they’re still holding, either in unvested awards or in unrestricted accounts.

If indeed CEOs can get richer by raising the value of their shares in the next five or six years than cashing on an ephemeral spike by pushing buybacks, then they should be deploying capital where it achieves the highest possible returns, at least over the medium-term. And that’s a strong possibility that Congress and the SEC should consider before restricting repurchases, a policy that risks damaging unintended consequences.

For CEOs and their lieutenants, the principal lever for raising the stock price is growing earnings-per-share. Dominating the U.S. economy are mature behemoths in steel, autos and packaged goods that generate far more profits than they can profitably reinvest in new plants, warehouses, fabs, or labs-––even such formerly go-go names as Apple and Microsoft now fit this profile. Here’s why these stalwarts, and many other players that need to make tough choices between reinvestment and repurchases, have a powerful incentive to return cash to shareholders: If a company reinvests a big portion of profits at less than competitive returns, say in pokey old-line businesses or expensive acquisitions, earnings-per-share will badly lag what EPS would have been if the cash had gone to shareholders in dividends, or the new favorite, buybacks. And once again, it’s rising EPS that drives share prices, and wins CEOs a bonanza on their options and restricted stock.

Put simply, buybacks per se don’t raise EPS or share prices, but not returning cash can be a killer.

THOUGHT EXPERIMENT

Let’s look at two companies that we’ll call Superb Steward Corp. and Lacking, Inc. Each is a typical S&P 500-sized outfit, with 1 billion shares outstanding, a market cap of $50 billion, and a share price of $50. Both earned $2.5 billion last year, so EPS is $2.50, and they share a P/E multiple of 20. Each pays out 40% of its earnings in dividends. The difference is that Steward distributes another 30% of profits in buybacks, and retains the remaining 30%. Lacking reinvests all of the earnings not paid in dividends, or 60% of the total.

For each company, and the stock market as a whole, the cost-of-capital, or the competitive return investors could garner from equally risky stocks and bonds, is 5% “real” or adjusted for inflation (equivalent to the inverse of the 20 P/E). Add 2 points for inflation, and investors expect a 7% total return. As you probably guessed, Superb Steward does a great job in allocating profits. It makes a competitive 5% gains on the 30% of earnings it reinvests, and recognizes that it can’t find profitable places to park the other 30%. So each year, its profits rise by 3.5% (30% reinvested earnings at 5%, or 1.5%, plus 2% inflation), it delivers 2% in dividends, and repurchases another 1.5% of its shares (30% of $2.5 billion in earnings are $750 million or 1.5% of its $50 billion market cap). In six years, by early 2026, its total earnings will grow by 23% (3.5% per annum) to $3.08 billion, its share count will fall by around 9% to 913 million shares (shrinking 1.5% a year due to the buybacks). The combination will lift its EPS to $3.37, and its share price by 35%, from $50 to $67.40 at the steady multiple of 20.

By the way, if Steward had found good places to invest the 30% of profits it returned in buybacks, the result would be exactly the same. That’s why buybacks per se don’t raise EPS and stock prices. The extra profits from the reinvested earnings would have exactly compensated for leaving the share count constant at 1 billion.

By contrast, Lacking thinks it’s found great places to plow all of the 60% of profits-after-dividends into its basic business. But Lacking is an aging stalwart that suffers from hubris. Its corporate culture relishes building new factories in plodding bedrock industries, and bulking up on mergers. Lacking’s CEO is an empire builder who prizes size above all else. As a result, Lacking generates only a 1% real return on those reinvested profits, still positive, but far below the 5% market minimum. Over the next six years, Lacking will delver profit growth of 2.6% a year (60% of earnings x real return of 1% = .6%, plus 2% inflation), so that by 2024, its earnings will wax by 16.6% from $2.5 billion to $2.9 billion. Its EPS will be $2.90 (because it still will have the same 1 billion shares outstanding). And its share price will be $58.00 at the same 20 multiple.

Steward grew its EPS and share price at twice the rate of Lacking, 35% versus 17%. By early 2025, Steward’s shares would be over 16% more valuable than Lacking’s. Flipping the calendar to 2025, the skill Steward’s CEO displayed in keeping profits in-house only when they generated good returns delivered many more millions in gains on options and restricted stock than the earnings-burning grandee garnered at Lacking.

Which strategy, hoarding capital or paying it out, was better for the overall economy? Over our six year window, Steward reinvested $5 billion of its earnings in businesses that grew briskly, created jobs, and generated strong returns. It handed another $5 billion back to shareholders. In turn, pension funds, endowments, and individuals had the freedom to funnel those funds into the fast-growing, cash-hungry businesses––the Apples and Amazons of the future––that deliver competitive returns on new capital, and create lots of jobs.

Lacking tied up $10 billion, all of its non-dividend profits, in ventures that barely grow with inflation, and probably shed jobs. Memo to the SEC: An unfettered financial market may be the best machine for channeling capital to the highest and best uses. And for lawmakers and regulators, the right solution may be keeping their hands off the gears.

 

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