Here is a script for a movie about the evils of stock buybacks, with the following players. The victim is an well-managed company in a business with significant growth opportunities and profit potential. The company has delivered products that its customers love, while paying its workers top-notch wages & benefits and invested heavily and prudently in its future. The villain is an activist investor, and for added color, let’s make him greedy, short term and a speculator. In the story, he forces the company to redirect money it would have spent on more great investments to buy back stock. The white knight can be a regulator, the government or a noble investor (make him/her successful, wealthy and socially conscious, i.e., Buffett-like) who rides in and saves the hapless company from the villain and stops the buyback. The story ends happily, with the defeat and humiliation of the activist investor, and the moral is that stock buybacks are evil (and need to be stopped). As you read some of the over-the-top responses to General Motors’s buyback, such as this one, you would not be alone in thinking that you were reading about the mythical company in the movie. But given General Motors’s history and current standing, do you really want to make it the basis for your case against buybacks?
General Motors is not well managed now, and has not been so, for a long time
Is General Motors a well managed firm? The answer might have been yes in 1925, when General Motors was the auto industry’s disruptor, challenging Ford, the established leader in the business at the time. It would have definitely been affirmative in 1945, when Alfred Sloan’s strategy of letting General Motors’s many brands operate independently won the automobile market race for General Motors, and it was the largest and most profitable automobile company in the world. It may have still been positive in 1965, when GM was on top of the world, a key driver of the US economy and US equity markets.
By 1985, the bloom was off the rose, as General Motors (and other US auto makers) were late to respond to the oil crisis and had let Japanese car makers not only take market share but also the mantle of reliability and innovation. In 2005, GM remained the largest car maker in the world, but it was in serious financial trouble, with an ageing customer base and huge legacy costs, from promises made to employees in good times. In 2008, the problems came to a head during the financial crisis, as GM had trouble making its debt payments, attracted government attention and a bailout. As part of the bargain, equity investors in GM were wiped out and lenders had to accept significantly less than they had been promised. If the objective of the bailout was General Motors’s survival, it worked, as the company was able to reverse a steep drop in revenues (in 2008) and start making profits again. That recovery came at a significant cost to taxpayers, who lost $11.2 billion in the bailout.
General Motors was able to go public again in 2010 and since it is the new version of the company that is buying back stock and it would be unfair to burden the incumbents with the mistakes of prior managers, I focus the bulk of my attention on how well the management of this new incarnation has done in its stewardship of the company. The picture below captures the new General Motors’s evolution as a company over the last five years:
General Motors has been reinvesting actively since it went public again in 2010, adding almost $25.5 billion in investments (in plant, equipment and working capital) to it base. The good news is that revenues have gone up, albeit at an anemic rate (3.56% a year between 2010 and 2014) but the bad news is that these increasing revenues have been accompanied by declining profitability. Even in 2011, the best of the five years in terms of profitability, General Motors’s return on capital of 6.86% lagged its cost of capital.
Does this imply that the existing management of General Motors is not up to the task? Not necessarily, since they were dealt a bad hand to begin with. They were saddled with brand names that evoke nothing but nostalgia, a cost structure that put them at a disadvantage (still) relative to other automobile companies and a legacy of past mistakes. At the same time, there is little that this management has done that can be viewed as visionary or exciting in the years since the IPO (in 2010). In fact, the end game for the new GM seems to be the same one that doomed the older version of the company: a fixation on market share (and number of cars sold), a desire to be all things to all people and an inability to admit mistakes. In the last two years, General Motors’s fumbling response to its “ignition switch” problem seem to have pushed GM back into the “troubled automobile company” category again. The bottom line is that the best case that you can make for General Motors’s current management is that it is a “blah” management, keeping the company alive and mildly profitable. The worst case is that this is still a management stuck in a time warp and in denial over how much the automobile business has changed in the last few decades and that it is only a matter of time before the government is faced again with the question of whether GM is too “big to fail”.
The auto business a bad one, with disruption around the corner
My measure of the quality of a business is simple and perhaps even simplistic. In a good business, the companies collectively in that business should be able to generate a return on capital that exceeds the cost of capital (based on the risk in the business) and the “best” companies in the business should earn significantly more than their costs of capital. The auto business fails both tests. In my most recent data update in January 2015, I computed the aggregated return on capital at auto companies globally (about 125+) in the trailing 12 months leading into January and arrived at 6.47%, a little more than 1% below the collective cost of capital of 7.53% that I computed for auto companies. Lest this be viewed as an outlier, the table below summarizes the aggregated return on capital and cost of capital for companies in the global automobile business each year for the last ten years:
If you are wondering whether this collective miasma is caused by the laggards in the group, I isolated the twenty largest automobile companies in the world in 2015 and estimated profitability and leverage numbers for them in March 2015:
Note that, if anything, the return on capital (which is based on operating income and invested