Dennis K. Berman:
For the last 20 years, IBM has been an avid, methodical buyer of its own stock. In 1993, it had 2.3 billion shares outstanding. Today it has 1.1 billion, shrinking at more than 1% per quarter over the past few years. At that pace, there will be no more publicly traded IBM shares left by 2034.
Sort of crazy. But that’s good news, right? Doesn’t that mean that IBM’s management feels its stock has a lot of value? Not necessarily:
Look deeper at IBM and dozens of mature U.S. companies, and you can sketch a different, more ominous, story: That CEOs are in fact stuck, reluctant to build new plants, launch products or pursue an acquisition.
By rote and by fear, they are pitching their billions into buybacks, nearly $1 trillion from the 100 largest companies in the S&P since 2008. In the 12 months ending in September, the total dollar amount of all corporate buybacks increased by 15% from a year earlier, according to S&P Dow Jones Indices.
$1 trillion since 2008 even though the numbers all seem to point to returns being clearly better when making long-term investments in the business (see: Amazon). But that seems risky for any CEO. As Berman concludes:
And so here it is in 2014, five years since the worst of the financial crisis. Are they playing to win? Or still playing not to lose?
And guess what: it’s actually worse than that. With the earnings miss today, IBM officially missed its revenue target for every quarter in 2013. They’re playing to lose.