Boeing’s Struggles Highlight the Perils of Stock Buybacks

By Garvin Jabusch.

In July 2019, I wrote about the dangers of stock buybacks, using Boeing (NYSE ticker BA) as a prime example of how this practice can undermine a company’s long-term health and competitiveness. At the time, Boeing was grappling with the fallout from two devastating 737 Max crashes, which killed 346 people and led to a worldwide grounding of the aircraft. It soon emerged that Boeing had spent a staggering $43 billion on stock buybacks between 2013 and 2019 – more than its total profits during that period – while allegedly skimping on safety and ignoring design flaws.

Fast forward to 2024, and Boeing’s woes have only multiplied. The 737 Max remains a reputational and financial albatross, with orders still lagging rival Airbus. Quality control issues have plagued other key programs like the 787 Dreamliner, leading to delivery delays and costly rework. And the company’s space ambitions have been rocked by the Starliner capsule’s persistent technical problems.

These ongoing struggles underscore just how damaging Boeing’s obsession with stock buybacks has been. By prioritizing the wealth of short-term traders (as opposed to investors) over long-term investments in innovation, safety, and quality, the aerospace giant has jeopardized its market dominance and, more importantly, the trust of the flying public.

Boeing’s story is a cautionary tale for the entire corporate world. As I argued in the piece below, stock buybacks create an illusion of value while often undermining a company’s true competitive strengths. In an era of rapid technological change and global competition, firms that squander their resources on financial engineering rather than meaningful innovation are setting themselves up for failure.

As Boeing’s continuing difficulties make clear, the costs of this short-sighted approach can be steep indeed – not just for individual companies, but for entire industries and the broader economy. It’s long past time for a serious reckoning with the pervasive and pernicious practice of stock buybacks.

The rest of the blog published in 2019 follows:

Original text:

Stock Buybacks Work When Fundamentals Don’t Matter

July 2019
An edited version of this blog was originally published by Worth

Stock buybacks, sometimes called company share repurchases, aren’t productive. They don’t make a product, provide a sellable service, provide training, invest in research and development, or innovate. They may create wealth, but it is not organic wealth creation, it is a function of artificially limiting the supply of a stock. But the underlying company is not worth more; the buyback has not helped it sell more or better. On the contrary, using profits and other company resources (often debt) to buy shares limits a firm’s ability to innovate, to invest in R&D, to scale production, to better compensate desirable employees, or to do anything else that may augment its intrinsic or book value. With a buyback program, the firm is creating the illusion of value by artificially creating a relative scarcity of shares. But there is a fatal flaw in the logic of share repurchases: for the supply and demand dynamic to raise prices, it takes more than restricting supply, there must also be demand. If a company squanders its resources on buybacks to the point that it is not competitive with its peers, it doesn’t matter how few shares are available, because investors won’t want to own the stock.

So buybacks, apart from near-term benefits to executives who are compensated in company shares and options, are not great builders of value. Buybacks don’t add to the size of a company’s economic pie, they simply deliver a bigger slice of the existing pie to the largest shareholders, usually executives. That being the case, why aren’t more investors avoiding companies overspending on buybacks?

Most stocks today are purchased without any regard for what a company does, what it makes, or how it manages its finances. As a recent article explains, “80% of the stock market is now on autopilot…Passive investments control about 60% of the equity assets, while quantitative funds — those relying on trend-following models instead of fundamental research — now account for 20% of the market share, according to estimates from J.P. Morgan.” Today, the main reason to buy a stock is because it is in an index. Companies understand that, and they know that as long as index funds have to own them, there is demand for their shares, regardless of growth or fundamental value in the underlying business.

In this world, where the demand part of the supply/demand curve is guaranteed, limiting the supply of shares would seem to make sense. Except spending on your own shares instead of on R&D, growth or employee development means you’re not innovating. And, today more than ever, innovation is the clear path to growth, profits and even domination.

On the point of ability to dominate, another danger is the advantage buybacks can give to global competitors. You know what companies spend less on buybacks than US firms? Chinese firms. R&D powerhouse Huawei, for example, is a cooperative (owned by “96,768 employee shareholders”), so they lack even the capacity to engage in buybacks. To a meaningful degree, corporate America’s obsession with spending large portions of retained earnings on their shares rather than on their business is handing a technological advantage to China and other competitors who spend profits more wisely. We’re committing unforced errors. (Recently, though, China has eased regulations limiting buybacks for companies domiciled there, so surely some firms in that country will begin scoring own goals as well.)

Are stock buybacks truly the opposite of creating fundamental value? So much so that before 1982 companies buying back their own shares could be charged with market manipulation. The pervasiveness of buybacks today is not only unwise, but also dangerous. It is part of how systems collapse: if it goes far enough, people can see the lack of underlying value, and will lose faith in ability of markets to reflect underlying worth. As economist Tyler Cowen has written, “without production, value is problematic.”

Combine William Lazonick’s observation (via Sheelah Kolhatkar in the New Yorker) “that, between 2013 and 2019, Boeing spent …forty-three billion dollars on buybacks (a hundred and four per cent of its profits) rather than spending resources to address design flaws in some of its popular jet models,” with the claims of former Boeing engineers (as reported by Bloomberg) that “relentless cost-cutting sacrificed safety,” and you know everything you need to about how pernicious, and even catastrophic, buybacks can be. (Italics added.) Not for nothing, Boeing’s first half sales data, released July 9th, 2019, showed deliveries down 37% from the same period in 2018, demoting the firm to second place, behind Airbus, among the world’s biggest plane makers.

Passive investing is short-circuiting free market economics. Instead of chasing the best, most innovative new ideas, the invisible hand now simply drops money into the S&P 500 (or what have you) without respect to the goods and services, innovation or value creation that a given company represents. When you encounter a company that believes it really has nothing better to do with its money than move it around the different cells of a share ownership spreadsheet, I would suggest what you see there may not represent fundamental long-term value. Perhaps, passive indexing notwithstanding, demand for such companies won’t be there indefinitely. Maybe one day, investors will once again care what a company actually does.


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