CWS Market Review – September 26, 2014

“The stock market is designed to transfer money from the active to the patient.”
– Warren Buffett

This market continues to be dominated by the strong U.S. dollar. This is a very important point that all investors need to understand. There’s barely a sector of the market that’s not being impacted by the rallying greenback. The difference is that lately, the market’s no longer going higher.

On Thursday, the stock market had its second-biggest drop in the last 24 weeks. The S&P 500 lost 1.62% to close at 1,965.99. That’s a five-week low. The Dow slipped below 17,000, and the Nasdaq Composite was especially hard hit. That index closed below 4,500 for the first time since mid-August.

It was only one week ago that the market reached its “Alibaba Peak.” Last Friday morning, the S&P 500 touched its all-time intra-day high of 2,019.26, and 122 minutes later, Alibaba made its market debut. That may not be a coincidence.

On Thursday, the dollar index broke out to a four-year high, and you can see the evidence everywhere. The yield spread between U.S. and German bonds reached a 15-year high. Gold dropped below $1,210 per ounce for the first time this year, and the small-cap Russell 2000 Index is now down 8.1% since July 3.


In this week’s CWS Market Review, I want to take a closer look at an important issue that has been driving the stock market: share buybacks. For years, Corporate America has been buying back its own shares at an impressive pace. Now, however, the buyback party looks to be coming to an end—and that might be good news. I’ll explain why in a bit.

Later on, we’ll take a look at the solid earnings report from Bed Bath & Beyond. The home-furnishings stores leaped more than 7% on Wednesday after they reported strong quarterly earnings. Speaking of buybacks, a few weeks ago, BBBY went to the bond market to borrow money so they could buy back gobs of their shares, and that’s what helped drive their earnings success. Or I should say their earnings-per-share success. We’ll also take a look at Medtronic’s tax inversion and the dividend increase from McDonald’s (their 38th in a row). But first, let’s look at what’s driving all these buybacks.

Why Share Buybacks Are Beginning to Fade

Anyone else remember when companies used to have lots of shares outstanding? Every quarter, the number of shares has slowly been getting smaller. More and more companies have been using their cash hordes to repurchase their own shares. The benefit for shareholders comes down to simple math. Having fewer shares helps your earnings-per-share, and investors like that. Howard Silverblatt, the main stat guy at S&P, notes that 295 companies in the S&P 500 reduced their share count last quarter.

On one hand, fewer shares is a good thing for investors, as it makes their holdings more valuable. But my take is that I’d prefer to see companies use their cash to expand their operations. That’s the best way to reinvest shareholder money: grow the business. But I can’t fault companies for buying back so much stock. What’s the point of keeping your cash in the bank, where you’d get 0.01%? After all, stocks are cheap and buyback announcements make for great PR.

I have two major complaints with share buybacks. One is that companies shouldn’t be in the stock market game. It’s a great idea to buy back a stock that’s cheap, assuming it rallies later on. But a lot of companies have tossed enormous sums of money at very expensive stocks, only to watch those assets fall. Cisco Systems is a perfect example. Remember a bank called Lehman Brothers? They used to be in the news a lot a few years ago. Anyway, Lehman spent $1 billion buying its own stock during the six months leading up to May 2008. I wince whenever I think about that. The Economist notes, “In all, America’s financial sector repurchased $207 billion of shares between 2006 and 2008. By 2009 taxpayers had had to inject $250 billion into the banks to save them.”

I’m also leery of companies sitting on too much cash. Peter Lynch has referred to this as the “Bladder Theory of Corporate Finance.” Even Apple got complaints from investors like Carl Icahn and David Einhorn for the size of its cash position, and it´s promised to return more money to shareholders. I also don’t like how many companies issue huge amounts of stock options for executive compensation, but they use share buybacks to mask how much they’re diluting their share base. There are exceptions like DirecTV which actually reduce their share count.

But we need to consider the fact that buybacks are popular with investors. Merrill Lynch found that companies with the largest buybacks crushed the market last year. But this year, the biggest repurchasers are performing nearly the same as the rest of the market. Actually, slightly worse. Perhaps, buybacks have lost their cool.

That could be the case. There are early indications that the buyback fever is fading. In Q2, companies in the S&P 500 bought back $116.2 billion worth of stock. That’s a decrease of 1.6% over last year, and a drop of 27.1% from Q1. Of course, stock prices are higher as well.

But that’s not all. Ironically, this could be an optimistic sign, because it means that companies are spending more money on growing their operations. Or, as crazy as this may sound, actually giving raises to their employees! When the financial crisis hit, buybacks were a no-brainer. Also, companies tend to be conservative with their dividend increases because it looks especially bad if you have to cut them later on. It’s generally assumed that a company will maintain its current dividend indefinitely.

There´s basic economics at work here. The U.S. economy has added close to nine million jobs in the last five years (we’ll get another jobs report next week). Those new jobs are an investment in a company’s future, and it’s encouraging to see firms take a more optimistic view of their future. A few days ago, Tesla said it’s building a new battery factory in Nevada. In response, the stock soared. In retrospect, the buyback craze was a result of low prices, low interest rates and a dragging economy. That’s coming to an end, and so, too, is the buyback frenzy. Now let’s take a look at a slumbering Buy List stock that’s taken full advantage of share buybacks.

Bed Buyback & Beyond

After the closing bell on Tuesday, Bed Bath & Beyond ($BBBY) reported earnings for its fiscal second quarter. Earnings announcements have been rather nerve-wracking for the home-furnishings chain; the stock has plunged after the last three earnings reports.

I’m pleased to say that that streak has come to an end. Shares of BBBY jumped more than 7.4% on Wednesday after Bed Bath & Beyond reported quarterly earnings of $1.17 per share. The company had previously said that earnings would range between $1.08 and $1.16 per share. Last week, I said that I expected earnings in the top end of that range, so the results were even better than I was expecting.

What’s interesting about BBBY’s earnings is the impact of buybacks. The company has been gobbling up its own shares at a furious pace. Net earnings fell 10.2% from the same quarter one year ago; however, there were 10.7% fewer shares. Presto! Earnings-per-share rose.

Bed Bath & Beyond recently floated a $1.5 billion bond offering to fund its share buybacks. Last quarter, BBBY spent $1 billion to buy back 16.9 million shares. Working out the math, that means they paid less than $60 per share on average, so they’re already in the money. Once again, it’s basic economics. The bond deal cost BBBY 4.38%, so it’s not exactly a back breaker. In fact, Standard & Poor raised their rating on Bed Bath & Beyond to AAA- from BBB+.


I’ve often said that I’m not a big fan of share buybacks, but I’ll give credit to BBBY for being another firm that´s actually reducing its share count. The company isn’t finished with buybacks either. There’s still another $1.8 billion remaining in the current buyback program. BBBY projects its share count will fall by another 13 million by the end of the fiscal year.

Bed Bath & Beyond gave us guidance for Q3 and Q4. For the third quarter, which ends in November, Bed Bath sees earnings ranging between $1.17 and $1.21 per share. For Q4, which is the all-important holiday season, they see earnings ranging between $1.78 and $1.83 per share. For the entire year, their earnings forecast is $5.00 to $5.08. BBBY sees comparable-store sales rising by 2% to 3% in Q3 and 4% to 5% in Q4.

The full-year forecast is the first time they’ve given us a specific EPS range, but it exactly comports with the “mid-single-digits” language they’ve used for several months. Not once have they budged from that forecast. Since the company made $4.79 per share last year, the current EPS guidance translates to annualized growth of 4.4% to 6.1%.

Adding up the two quarterly guidance ranges gives us a full-year range of $5.04 to $5.13. I’m probably reading too much into that, but it’s something to note. Overall, this was a solid quarter for BBBY. The stock remains a good buy up to $70 per share.

Medtronic Down on Tax-Inversion Rules

This week, Medtronic ($MDT) learned an important lesson that many of us have known for a long time—you simply can’t become Irish because you feel it. Shares of MDT dropped close to 3% on Tuesday, and still more on Wednesday and Thursday, after the government announced new rules for “tax inversions.” That’s what Medtronic is trying to do as it buys Ireland’s Covidien ($COV) and moves its HQ to the Emerald Isle. The move would cut their tax bill by a good amount.

I’ll be honest with you—I don’t know what impact the new rules will have on the MDT/COV deal, and it sounds like no one else knows at this point either. The lawyers are still looking it over. The key issue is a company’s holding of cash outside the United States. In Medtronic’s case, they hold close to $14 billion outside the country. Medtronic wants to loan some of that to their new parent, but the new rules might stop that.

Bloomberg reported that Medtronic released a statement saying, “We are studying the Treasury’s actions. We will release our perspective on any potential impact on our pending acquisition of Covidien following our complete review.” Don’t let the recent sell-off rattle you. Medtronic remains a buy up to $67 per share.

McDonald’s Raises Its Dividend for the 38th Year in a Row

I wanted to say a quick word about McDonald’s ($MCD), which has been a problem child this year. The company has been trying to right itself after several missteps. The results don’t yet reflect this, and the last sales report was truly terrible.

In the CWS Market Review from three weeks ago, I said I was concerned that Mickey D’s wouldn’t raise their dividend this year. I’m pleased to say that that wasn’t the case. Last week, McDonald’s announced that they’re raising their quarterly dividend from 81 to 85 cents per share. The burger giant aims to return $18 billion to $20 billion to shareholders from 2014 through 2016. The new dividend is payable on December 15 to shareholders of record as of December 1. Going by the new dividend and Thursday’s closing price, McDonald’s now yields 3.61%. McDonald’s remains a conservative buy up to $101 per share.

Two more things to mention. DirecTV ($DTV) shareholders approved the AT&T merger with 99% of the vote. Also, Cognizant Technology Solutions ($CTSH) is very cheap at the moment. The shares are at a seven-week low. If you can pick up CTSH below $45, that’s a very good purchase.

That’s all for now. The third quarter comes to a close next Tuesday. After that, we’ll get the important turn-of-the-month economic reports. The September ISM report comes out on Wednesday. There’s a chance it could hit a 10-year high. Also on Wednesday, we’ll get the ADP jobs report. Then on Friday will be the official jobs report from the government. The last report was on the weak side. I doubt that’s the start of a trend. Be sure to keep checking the blog for daily updates. I’ll have more market analysis for you in the next issue of CWS Market Review!

– Eddy

Posted by on September 26th, 2014 at 7:05 am

The information in this blog post represents my own opinions and does not contain a recommendation for any particular security or investment. I or my affiliates may hold positions or other interests in securities mentioned in the Blog, please see my Disclaimer page for my full disclaimer.

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