Buyback Binge and Financial Engineering

Boston-based asset management firm Grantham Mayo van Otterloo’s Jeremy Grantham scrutinizes the buyback binge and the financial engineering it entails:

Jeremy Grantham of Grantham Mayo van Otterloo Grantham argues that capitalism is failing for now. He blames the rise of “stock option culture” and a complicit U.S. fed for the problem. Up to 80% of executive compensation now flows from stock options, which are tied to short-term performance of a company’s stock rather than long-term performance of the company. People respond to the incentives they’re given, so managers tend toward those actions which increase the value of their stock options. Investing in the company is slow, uncertain and risky, and so capital expenditures (“capex”) by publicly-traded firms is falling. Buying back stock (overpriced or not) and issuing dividends is quick, clean and safe, and so that sort of financial engineering expands. Interest rates at or near zero even encourage the issuance of debt to fund buybacks (“Peter, meet Paul”). It would be possible to constrain the exercise of options, but we choose not to. And so firms are not moving capital into new ventures or into improving existing capabilities which, in the short run, continues to underwrite record profit margins.

Source: The Mutual Fund Observer’s report after Morningstar’s Annual Investor Conference in Chicago.

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