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Share Buybacks - Friend or Foe?

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Almost 20 years on from publishing my book, Accounting for Growth, I am exposing another loophole in the accountancy rules which is allowing companies to appear to have created value when they have not.

Today I am publishing a paper scrutinising the in vogue use of share buybacks - are they a friend or foe to shareholders? Do they create or destroy value? You might think the answer is obvious, but think again.

The problem is that when a company repurchases shares they disappear from the balance sheet and this can be used to distort measures of company performance. Simply by executing a share buyback rather than paying out dividends, companies can inflate their Earnings Per Share (EPS) and are almost universally seen to have created value for shareholders when mostly they clearly have not.

Capital allocation decisions are amongst the most important decisions which management of companies make on behalf of shareholders. Yet share buybacks are not sufficiently understood by company investors and commentators, and maybe even by company management. One of the most important facts that is continually overlooked is that share buybacks only create value if the shares repurchased are trading below intrinsic value and there is no better use for the cash which would generate a higher return.

Most share buybacks destroy value for remaining shareholders, and management is able to get away with this as current accounting for share buybacks conceals their true effect.

So what needs to change?

1. Management should be required to justify share buybacks by reference to the price paid and the implied return as well as comparing this with alternative uses for the cash.

2. Investors and commentators should analyse share buybacks on exactly the same basis as they would if the company bought shares in another company.

3. Investors and commentators should use return on equity to analyse the effect of share buybacks rather than movements in earnings per share.

4. Share buybacks need to be viewed with more than average scepticism when done by companies whose management are incentivised by growth in EPS.

5. Accounting for share buybacks should be changed so that the shares remain a part of shareholders funds as well as an equity accounted asset on the balance sheet in calculating returns.

My detailed analysis is presented in the form of a paper with accompanying PowerPoint slides (which can be accessed by clicking below) - for any shareholder, analyst or director, I can guarantee it is worth a close read.