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Are Buyback ETFs in Troubled Waters?

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Share repurchases, one of the popular tools that kept Wall Street charged-up in all these years, are now under pressure in a coronavirus-rattled economy. Buybacks is a mean for companies to maximize shareholder value as well as boost their own shares.

Backed by low interest rates and sturdy balance sheets, buybacks have added around $5 trillion to the stock market since 2009. President Donald Trump’s tax reform also helped in 2018, a year which saw $806 billion in buybacks by S&P 500 companies. In 2019, the cash spent on the same was $729 billion.

However, the coronavirus outbreak and the resultant lockdowns in several countries have wreaked havoc on economies and businesses, causing severe cash crunch. This led the S&P 500 companies to suspend $190 billion in repurchases during late-March. The magnitude marks roughly 25% of last year’s buy-back total. Senate’s “phase 3” COVID-19 bill also deterred many companies from repurchasing shares.

Per Goldman Sachs, companies in the S&P 500 Index will likely slash their share buybacks by 50% to $371 billion by 2020-end. Not only buybacks, dividend payments are also at stake. Goldman Sachs projects a 25% year-over-year drop in dividends.

Banks Announce Brief Suspension of Buybacks

Several U.S. banks — Bank of America (BAC - Free Report) , Bank of New York Mellon (BK - Free Report) , Citigroup (C - Free Report) , Goldman Sachs (GS - Free Report) , JPMorgan Chase (JPM - Free Report) , Morgan Stanley MS , State Street STT and Wells Fargo WFC — suspended share buybacks temporarily for the rest of the first quarter and the second quarter of 2020 as the coronavirus crisis has roiled businesses and in turn markets. Many other U.S. banks have also decided on the same.

Oil Firms Cutting Buybacks & Dividends

Energy companies are known for paying out high dividends. Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM - Free Report) and BP Plc BP yield about 8.07% and 10.04%, respectively. Amid the ongoing oil market rout, maintaining the huge dividend payouts is a tall order.

Occidental Petroleum OXY has announced a cut in its quarterly dividend payout for the first time in 30 years by 86% to 11 cents a share, effective July. Occidental Petroleum’s dividend yield is as high as 20.57% as of Apr 13. Continental Resources Inc. CLR too suspended dividends (read: Oil Firms May Cut Dividends Ahead: ETFs & Stocks in Focus).

Along with many analysts, we believe that no big oil company would want to cut dividends as it will hurt the company’s credibility. As a restructuring measure, companies are cutting capital expenditures. Shell, Chevron (CVX - Free Report) (yields 6.12%) and TOTAL have called off buybacks (which are normally seen by investors as “more discretionary”) to save on dividend payments.

A Few More Potential Halts in Buybacks

U.S. airline companies — the worst hit by coronavirus —  have spent about $43.7 billion in cash on share buybacks since 2012. They in fact have shelled out 96% of free cash flow last decade on buybacks, per Bloomberg. No wonder, after receiving a $50-billion bailout, airlines have tightened their belts on buybacks and dividends. Under pressure, Boeing (BA - Free Report) too had to walk the same path.

Chipmaker Intel (INTC - Free Report) halted its $20-billion share repurchase program. Telecom giant AT&T (T - Free Report) too withdrew its $4 billion worth of share buy-back plan. While retailers Lululemon LULU cut its share buy-back program, Nordstrom JWN halted both buyback and dividend payouts. Restaurant behemoth McDonald’s (MCD - Free Report) cut its $15-billion buyback program and Brinker International Inc. (EAT - Free Report) halted both its dividend payouts and buybacks.

ETF Performance

We would like to note that overall sentiment in the buyback space is likely to be grim till the summer months. Pureplay buyback ETFs like Invesco Buyback Achievers Portfolio PKW (up 0.6%) and SPDR S&P 500 Buyback ETF SPYB (up 0.3%) have underperformed the broader S&P 500 index (up 2.96%) in the past month (as of Apr 13, 2020).

Notably, PKW includes corporations that have effected a net reduction in shares outstanding of 5% or more in the trailing 12 months, while SPYB tracks performances of the top 100 stocks with the highest buyback ratios in the S&P 500 in the past year. With buybacks are being called off now, past records may not be a good guide to gauge the expected share performances of those companies.

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