Companies in the S&P 500 bought a record amount of their own stock last year and don't show any signs of slowing down.
Flush with cash from solid earnings, companies repurchased $882 billion of stock in 2021. Goldman Sachs is forecasting stock buybacks to reach $1 trillion this year, even as companies grapple with rising inflation, higher interest rates and the potential for stunted economic growth.
Companies use repurchases, in part, to return cash to investors and support the stock's price. Earnings per share can increase because there are fewer shares outstanding. Buybacks also signal confidence from leadership about a company's financial prospects.
During the fourth quarter, one out of seven companies in the S&P 500 increased their earnings-per-share by at least 4% thanks to their newly lowered share count, said Howard Silverblatt, senior index analyst at S&P Dow Jones Indices. Companies such as Amazon and General Electric have approved additional repurchases, setting the stage for more buybacks in 2022.
Stocks fell as much as 12% to start the year before a recent rally. Silverblatt says indications are that companies continued to buy back shares through the downturn, “which means they’ll be getting more shares for their expenditures and reducing share count even further, resulting in higher earnings per share.”
Goldman Sachs expects buybacks to continue representing the largest use of cash for S&P 500 companies, followed by capital expenses. The trend is being supported by a strong backlog of authorizations to repurchase stock, along with solid earnings growth and high cash balances.
Companies are plowing more of their cash into repurchasing their own stock even as they face higher expenses for raw materials, shipping and labor. So far, companies have largely been able to pass those costs on to their customers, but higher prices on everything from food to clothing could threaten consumer spending. A significant pullback by consumers could crimp sales growth for many companies.
What's unclear is the eventual impact of interest rate increases by global central banks including the Federal Reserve and Russia's war on Ukraine. Any unexpected hit to the global economy could put companies in a tighter financial position than they anticipated.
When the pandemic delivered an unexpected hit to the global economy in 2020, many companies encountered steep drops in sales and profits and higher outlays of cash. Many were criticized for having spent lavishly on buybacks the year before instead of building a cash cushion.
For now, companies are plowing ahead with buybacks. Amazon, which was one of the biggest beneficiaries from the pandemic-accelerated shift to online shopping, announced a $10 billion stock buyback plan earlier in March. Other large and notable buyback announcements in March included GE's plan to repurchase up to $3 billion shares.