(Bloomberg) — Companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index really love their shareholders. Maybe too much.
They’re poised to spend $914 billion on share buybacks and dividends this year, or about 95 percent of earnings, data compiled by Bloomberg and S&P Dow Jones Indices show. Money returned to stock owners exceeded profits in the first quarter and may again in the third. The proportion of cash flow used for repurchases has almost doubled over the last decade while it’s slipped for capital investments, according to Jonathan Glionna, head of U.S. equity strategy research at Barclays Plc.
Buybacks have helped fuel one of the strongest rallies of the past 50 years as stocks with the most repurchases gained more than 300 percent since March 2009. Now, with returns slowing, investors say executives risk snuffing out the bull market unless they start plowing money into their businesses.
“You can only go so far with financial engineering before you actually have to have a business with real growth,” Chris Bouffard, chief investment officer who oversees $9 billion at Mutual Fund Store in Overland Park, Kansas, said by phone on Oct. 2. “Companies have done about all that they can in terms of maximizing the ability to do those buybacks.”
S&P 500 constituents will probably say earnings rose 4.9 percent in the third quarter when they begin reporting results this week, according to more than 10,000 analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg. Alcoa Inc., Yum! Brands Inc. and Monsanto Co. are among nine companies scheduled to announce financial details.
U.S. equities rebounded from last week’s retreat, with the S&P 500 rising 0.4 percent at 9:55 a.m. in New York. The S&P 500 Buyback Index is up 7.5 percent this year through Oct. 3, compared with the 6.5 percent advance in the S&P 500, after beating it by an average of 9.5 percentage points every year since 2009.
While the ratio to earnings shows how buybacks and dividends compare to past economic expansions, it doesn’t indicate companies are struggling to fund them. Five years of profit growth have left S&P 500 constituents with $3.59 trillion in cash and marketable securities and they’ve raised almost $1.28 trillion in 2014 through bond sales, headed for a record.
“Buybacks are something corporations can take control of and at low borrowing costs, they’re a viable option,” Randy Bateman, chief investment officer of Huntington Asset Advisors, which manages about $2.8 billion, said by phone on Oct. 1. At the same time, he said, “If management can’t unearth future opportunities for growth, as a shareholder, I lose confidence.”