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:

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General Motors Buyback
The New GM: Investment, Revenues and Profits from 2010-2014

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:

General Motors Buyback

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:

General Motors Buyback

Note that, if anything, the return on capital (which is based on operating income and invested book capital) is biased towards making a company look better than it really is (largely because accountants are quick to write off mistakes), but even on this measure, only one of the ten largest companies (Audi) earned a return on capital that is higher than its cost of capital in 2014. In fact, mass-market auto companies like Volkswagen, Toyota and Ford have abysmal returns on capital, suggesting that the club that General Motors is trying to rejoin is not an attractive one. The typically large automobile company in 2015 is a highly levered behemoth, which struggles to earn enough to cover its cost of capital in a market with anemic revenue growth.

Given that the business model for automobile companies seems to have broken down, it should come as no surprise that the business is being targeted for disruption. While I have argued against the pricing premiums that the market is paying for Tesla, it is undeniable that it’s entry into the market has speeded up the investments that other auto makers are making in electric cars. Given their track record of poor profitability, I would not be surprised if the next big disruption of this market comes from companies in healthier businesses and that will bring more pressures on existing automobile companies. If there is a light at the end of this tunnel for incumbent automobile companies, I don’t see it.

A General Motors Buyback: Value Effects?

In an earlier post on buybacks, I used a picture to illustrate how a buyback may affect value and I think that picture can help in assessing the General Motors buyback:

General Motors Buyback

Looking at the picture, I can see why activist investors were pushing General Motors to return more cash. It is a middling company in a bad business, where even the very best companies struggle to earn their costs of capital. Since it is possible that I am blinded by my stockholder-focus, I considered what General Motors could have done with the $5 billion, instead of buying back stock.

  1. Invest the cash: General Motors could have invested the cash back into the auto business, but given the state of the business and the returns generated by players in it, this effectively throws good money after bad. In fact, looking at how little the $25.5 billion in reinvestment has done for General Motors in the last five years, I think a stronger argument can be made that they would perhaps have been better off not investing that money and returning it to stockholders as well.
  2. Hold the cash or pay down debt: Auto companies are natural cash hoarders, arguing that as cyclical companies, they need the cash to survive the next recession or downturn. In fact, that argument seems to have added resonance at a company like General Motors, which has just come out of a near-death experience with default. At the risk of sounding heartless, I would counter that survival for the sake of survival makes little sense. A corporation is a legal entity and there is a corporate life cycle, a time to be born, a time to grow, a time to harvest and finally a time to shut down. If your response is that you cannot let that happen to an American icon like General Motors, there was a time when Xerox was so dominant in its business that it’s corporate name  became synonymous with its product (copies) and Eastman Kodak was the ‘camera’ company, but pining for those days will not bring them back. The actions driven by the “too big to fail” ethos have cost the taxpayers $11 billion already. Do you really want to do this a second time around with General Motors?
  3. Return the cash to other stakeholders (labor, the government): You can argue that my view of buybacks fails to take into account the interests of other stakeholders in the firm, its workers, its suppliers and perhaps even the government. It is true that General Motors could use the $5 billion to give its workers raises and replenish their pensions. That will be good news for those workers, but doing so will only push down the measly return on capital that General Motors is currently earning, make future access to capital (debt or equity) even more difficult, and set the company on the pathway to financial devastation.

The Root of the Disagreement

There are “corporate finance” reasons for arguing against buybacks in some companies and they include concerns about damaging growth potential (where buybacks come at the expensive of good investments), about timing (when companies buy back shares when prices are high, rather than low) , or managerial self-interest (if buybacks are being used to push up stock prices ahead of option exercises). Since it is almost impossible to use any of these with General Motors, those arguing against a General Motors buyback are really against all stock buybacks, no matter who does them. While I don’t agree with these critics, I think that there is a simple way to understand the vehemence of their opposition and it is rooted in ideology and philosophy, not finance.  If you believe, as I do, that as a publicly traded automobile company, General Motors’s mission is to take capital from investors and generate higher returns for them that they could have made elsewhere, in investments of equivalent risk, with that money, you can justify the buyback and perhaps even argue that it should be more. If you believe that General Motors’s mission as a car company is to build more auto plants and produce more cars, hire more workers and pay them premium wages and save the cities of Flint and Detroit from bankruptcy (as a side benefit), this or any buyback is a bad idea. In fact, it is not just buybacks that you should have a problem with but any cash returned (including dividends) to investors, since that cash could have been used more productively (with your definition of productivity) by the company. It is also extremely unlikely that you will find anything that I have to say about buybacks to be persuasive since we have a philosophical divide that cannot be bridged. So, its best that we agree to disagree!

Past posts on buybacks

  1. Stock Buybacks: What is happening and why (January 25, 2011)
  2. Buybacks and Stock Prices: Good news or bad news (January 25, 2011)
  3. The Shift to Buybacks: Implications for Investors (February 1, 2011)
  4. Stock Buybacks: They are big, they are back and they scare some people (September 22, 2014)

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