Share buybacks provided plenty of big headlines this week.
The Biden administration seems ready to pick a fight with any firm looking to set aside billions for such megapurchases. The White House and some Democrats would rather C.E.O.s use the money to reinvest in their businesses — that would lead to stronger firms, more jobs and better returns for investors, the thinking goes. They also feel buybacks disproportionately enrich managers at the expense of employees. In his State of the Union address, President Biden called for quadrupling the tax on share repurchases.
Warren Buffett isn’t buying that argument. In his annual letter to shareholders, the billionaire C.E.O. of Berkshire Hathaway said to beware the buyback detractor — who is either an “economic illiterate or a silver-tongued demagogue.”
Who’s right? DealBook reviewed the research and spoke to buyback experts. Here’s what we found:
Buybacks can be a boon for investors. According to Savita Subramanian, head of U.S. equity and quantitative strategy at Bank of America, investors tend to reward companies that execute repurchases by, yep, buying more stock. Over the past five years, share prices went up for nearly 55 percent of the 2,997 companies tracked by Bank of America that repurchased shares.
More evidence supporting buybacks:
Repurchases signal to Wall Street that the company has a healthy balance sheet, and that attracts more investor interest, said Luis Garcia-Feijoo, research director at the CFA Institute Research Foundation. Exhibit A: Salesforce’s shares soared on Thursday after the company announced that it would buy back $20 billion worth of shares. Exhibit B: Meta’s stock also spiked when it made a similar announcement last month.
Investors tend to view buybacks more favorably than dividends — another common goody that companies bestow on shareholders. One reason: The former tend to carry a relatively light or imperceptible tax hit, Mr. Garcia-Feijoo said.
Buybacks don’t work for all companies. (Even Mr. Buffett admits this.) Shareholders tend to punish companies that repurchase shares that are already too pricey. Subramanian calculates that the 50 biggest companies in the S&P 500 are overvalued. For them, buybacks don’t make as much sense.
Companies may be buying back too many shares. Companies announced plans to buy more than $1.2 trillion of their own stock last year and could come close to, or surpass, that this year. Firms are spending roughly 90 percent of their earnings on buybacks and dividends, according to Bharat Ramamurti, deputy director of the National Economic Council. Some market pros are having second thoughts, too. In a December survey of global fund managers by Bank of America, 56 percent said they would prefer that the C.E.O. used excess funds to shore up the balance sheet; just 16 percent said they wanted to see more buybacks.
The verdict? According to Mr. Garcia-Feijoo, a prevailing view is emerging: “Buybacks are not so bad.” Mr. Buffett wins the argument, he says.
Dilbert gets a pink slip. Hundreds of newspapers cut the cartoon strip that mocks office culture after its creator, Scott Adams, described Black people as a “hate group” and said white people should “just get the hell away from them.” Mr. Adams said he was using hyperbole and complained that he had been “canceled.” Not quite — he is still able to publish content, even if most media outlets want nothing to do with him.
Netflix goes live. The streaming platform announced two firsts: a livestreamed Chris Rock stand-up comedy show and a live stage production, “Stranger Things: The First Shadow,” to be held in London this year. The company previously experimented with immersive experiences linked to franchises including “Bridgerton,” “Squid Game” and “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.”
Tick Tock for TikTok. The Chinese short video app introduced a one-hour time limit for users who are under 18. The move was announced days after the Biden administration, Canada and the European Union banned the social media powerhouse from government phones over concerns that the company may put sensitive information in the hands of the Chinese government.
Salesforce discovers its profit motive. The software group, grappling with six activist investors, reported better-than-expected earnings, sending its share price soaring. Marc Benioff, the C.E.O., was joyful in a round of interviews with journalists and on a call with analysts. He said Salesforce was now putting a priority on profits and efficiency over growth. (A nonchalant admission that raises the question: What took it so long?)
Bridgewater’s C.E.O., Nir Bar Dea, unveiled a long-awaited revamp of the world’s biggest hedge fund this week, five months after its founder, Ray Dalio, ceded control. The sweeping changes include expanding in Asia, cutting nearly 8 percent of its work force and capping the size of its flagship Pure Alpha fund to $70 billion.
A new C.E.O. for a new era. “I know for a lot of people — I’m not necessarily what they would be expecting,” Bar Dea told Bloomberg last year. “I don’t sound like it, look like it, the role of the C.E.O. of Bridgewater.” In 2020, Fortune named Mr. Bar Dea one of its “40 Under 40” in finance.
Mr. Bar Dea’s grandparents are from Libya, Poland and Hungary. He grew up in Israel and says the country’s transformation underpins his own ambition. “I saw a nation be built almost from the ground up in my lifetime,” he told Forbes.
Previous experience: the army, diplomacy and start-ups. Mr. Bar Dea was a platoon leader in the Israeli Defense Forces. He later founded a drone company and has said shutting it down was one of the most formative events of his career. Mr. Bar Dea later ran real estate for a restaurant company called Dishes, and in 2014 he took a role as adviser and speechwriter to the Israeli mission to the United Nations. He has an M.B.A. from Wharton.
Mr. Bar Dea arrived at a pivotal moment. He joined Bridgewater in 2015 after being contacted by Karen Karniol-Tambour, a co-chief investment officer, and started as a management associate in the research and analytics unit — just as the firm was beginning to plan for a future without its founder. When he came to Bridgewater, he said, that’s when “the journey of transitioning,” began. “It was the beginning of thinking about how we’re going to transition our investment oversight from Ray Dalio to the next generation.”
— London’s high-end property watchers are agog over a palatial mansion that just went on the market. Its sale could set a record, fetching as much as 250 million pounds ($300 million). The crown for most expensive London property is held by a Chinese billionaire property developer who bought a mansion overlooking Hyde Park for £210 million in 2020. Move fast — bids are already pouring in on the Regent’s Park abode.
In the early days of the Covid pandemic, the Federal Reserve pulled out all the stops. It slashed the prime lending rate to near zero and spent roughly $5 trillion buying up Treasury bills and mortgage-backed securities and pumping liquidity into America’s banking system.
The moves helped limit the pandemic’s economic toll and ignited a bull market stock rally that carried the mantra “Don’t fight the Fed.” In her new book, “Limitless: The Federal Reserve Takes On a New Age of Crisis,” The Times’s Jeanna Smialek takes on, and demystifies, the world’s most powerful central bank. The interview has been edited and condensed:
What is the party pitch for a book on central banking?
The Fed matters to you, to your life, to markets, your retirement portfolio, and it increasingly matters for our democratic system of capitalism.
Why is the Fed especially important right now?
The Fed really expanded its footprint during the 2008 financial crisis and especially in 2020 during the pandemic. It has been doing things that extend beyond traditional monetary policy.
Is this a positive evolution?
It’s almost a historic inevitability in response to changing circumstances. But the institution has a lot of power and few checks on it, and there may be a point when we decide there should be more firm limits. We should be watching and talking about what it’s doing and where we’re going.
What risks does it face?
Efforts to politicize the Fed, particularly. There have been similar efforts since its founding, but the risks are greater now because it has so much power.
How will it respond to the next crisis?
What we tend to see is that once it uses a tool, it could use it again even though it may have been touted as “once in a lifetime.” In the pandemic, the Fed created a local government lending facility, which was very unusual and had never been done. We might see that again.
What do you wish more people would consider?
Ten years ago, none of us were paying much attention to the Supreme Court as it was becoming a more important force in society. We’re at the same point with the Fed. We should not wait to understand it.
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