The spirit of Henry Singleton cried a little this earnings season. If you don’t know who he is see https://25iq.com/2014/11/08/a-dozen-things-ive-learned-from-henry-singleton-about-value-investing-venture-capital/. In short, he was one of the best capital allocators of all time. He issued shares when Mr. Market loved his company and bought them back when Mr. Market didn’t like his company. Dr. Singleton didn’t care about Mr. Market’s opinion. He used Mr. Market to his advantage.

Today, corporate share buybacks are all over the news. On December 21, 2018 Barron’s ran an article about corporate buybacks setting a record in 2018. https://www.barrons.com/articles/2018-record-stock-buybacks-51545361596. This excerpt was particularly exciting for long term oriented investors:

Why? Because in December there was carnage in the market. Everyone was selling everything indiscriminately. The selling offered up some very interesting opportunities in certain companies. That’s when management teams should pounce.

So what did Facebook, Apple, and Google all do with their cash hoards at that time? Nothing. At least nothing meaningful. And that is a disgraceful outcome given the amount of talent that is at these companies. In retrospect, it’s pretty clear that December was not a fundamentally driven sell off. It was fear based (though Apple actually had a meaningful slowdown in China).

Moreover, these companies had internal data that showed they were healthy. The CFOs knew the businesses were not deteriorating like the stock price. That is the exact time a corporate finance department should increase their buying activity. Especially in a cash generative company! Instead, they sat on their hands.

And that lack of action demonstrates why corporations, in aggregate, are not very good at share repurchases. On average, corporate buybacks do decrease share count and shares historically tend to increase in price. So, for the long term investor buybacks are better than nothing. But, buybacks have immense potential power and even today’s best companies don’t understand how (or are too scared) to use them properly.

In the interest of disclosure, SCG reduced its cash position from 33% in October to just under 20% by the end of December. This isn’t a promotional statement. In fact, it’s way too early to determine whether that was the right long term decision. But, why in the world were the best companies not meaningfully deploying capital when SCG was? The answer lies in the institutional imperative. And that is a sad realization considering who those companies supposedly employ.