Stock buybacks hit record $189.1B

Stan Choe
The Associated Press

NEW YORK – Flush with savings from lower tax bills and profits from a growing economy, big U.S. companies are spending a record amount buying back their own stock.

Stock repurchases hit $189.1 billion in the first quarter for the S&P 500, according to preliminary results from S&P Dow Jones Indices. That tops the prior record of $171.9 billion set during the summer of 2007, just before the Great Recession struck.

The robust buying of their own shares continues a yearslong trend where companies have returned more and more cash to their investors through buybacks and dividends.

S&P 500 companies returned a total of $1 trillion to their shareholders in the 12 months through March, the first time they’ve passed that threshold.

Apple, Cisco Systems and other technology giants helped lead the way. Apple has traditionally been one of the biggest repurchasers of its own stock, and it set a record in the first quarter by spending roughly $23 billion.

By buying their own stock, companies can limit the number of their shares available in the market, which in turn allows remaining shareholders to lay claim to a bigger proportion of profits. Critics, though, don’t like it when companies pay too high a price to repurchase their own shares, and the S&P 500 has quadrupled in value since hitting bottom in early 2009.

Some money managers have been pushing companies to spend more on investments and higher wages for workers, which would spur more economic activity, rather than returning it to shareholders. That has been happening more slowly than many had hoped, but things may be changing now that the unemployment rate is at an 18-year low.

“You saw a lot of money in the last several years go to stock buybacks and dividends, but with the unemployment market being as tight as it is, companies have to make investments to get more productive,” said Ann Miletti, a portfolio manager at Wells Fargo Asset Management.