Weeks before the Republican-led Congress moved toward final passage of its corporate tax cut bill, major companies had already begun a surge of stock buybacks — confirming critics’ fears that the windfall of lower rates will be used for self-enrichment rather than job growth.
Home Depot led the buyback splurge, pocketing $15 billion. On an earnings call held earlier this month, the company’s CFO Carol Tomé quietly admitted the strategy, when asked about the impact of tax reform on the firm:
It really all depends on if it happens and when it happens and how we would spend it. Cash is fungible. Right now, we’re thinking it might not happen until 2019, so obviously we are using internally generated cash in 2018 to invest in the business and return capital to our shareholders. If it were to happen in 2019, we might use the tax — cash tax savings to invest in the business and then use — generated cash to back buy [sic] shares, it’s all fungible. The point is, we’re going to generate a lot, we may get some from tax reform and we will use it. We will invest back in the business, and we will return it our [sic] shareholders.
By “return it to our shareholders,” she is referring to a buyback, which drives up the price of a stock and can come with dividends as well. Typically, executives hold much of their wealth in company stock, and their compensation is tied to the performance of the shares.
Other corporations are expected to use the windfall to increase mergers and acquisitions (M&A) or invest in automation. “Industry executives have been eagerly anticipating tax reform in earnings calls, interviews and casual conversation all year. Multiple CEOs have projected major M&A activity will follow if any kind of corporate rate reduction is finalized, further accelerating the rapid pace of consolidation in the industry,” wrote one industry publication about how waste companies are anticipating tax reform.
But the House Republicans who wrote and passed the tax bill on Tuesday have ignored these warnings. In interviews with The Intercept, members suggested that stock buybacks, as well as M&A, will either be rare or not that harmful to the economy.
Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., didn’t believe in the buyback threat because some executives publicly pledged to increase jobs. “Most recently … the Delta CEO, and I don’t recall his name, he acknowledged that when the economy grows, it helps them and he doesn’t intend to buyback stock, he intends on making a better product,” she said. When we followed up on whether she anticipates any merger or stock buyback wave, she replied, “I don’t anticipate that happening.”
Other members conceded that buybacks and M&As may happen, but essentially shrugged off the ramifications.
Freshman Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., was one of those. “I don’t think we should count the chickens before the Senate votes. And I suspect that different companies will use this tax cut in different ways. The economy is always a different mosaic of different options and opportunities for people,” he said. “Not every instance of a buyback of stock is bad. Sometimes that can help spur more growth. We’ll see.”
Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., — who as you may recall unseated Eric Cantor with a populist campaign railing against the influence of corporate lobbyists — refused to even consider the possibility that corporations won’t use the windfall for job creation.
“That’s just a talking point,” he said of concerns about stock buybacks and consolidation. “Billions of cash have been on the side. So rationally, right, what would an economist tell you? If you’ve got billions of dollars on the sideline doing nothing, is that rational? No, it tells you they can’t find any investment that’s worthwhile.”
He insisted that the wave of mergers and stock buybacks was a feature of the previous president. “Yeah, under the Obama economy that’s what they did. That’s true. Watch what happens now,” he said.
When we reminded him that corporations used a tax repatriation holiday enacted under George W. Bush to do exactly that, he was unmoved. “OK, that’s good but it doesn’t take down what I just said,” he retorted.
Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., admitted that they don’t really know what corporations will do with the money. “Well, from the standpoint of tax policy, you can’t dictate how a corporation is going to rebalance their balance sheet as a consequence of tax change. So what I’d say is it’s the intended and hoped for effect of the bill that they’ll invest … but it’s not the guarantee of the bill,” he said.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-S.C., Freedom Caucus chair, admitted that a stock buyback wave is possible.
“There could be. Anything could happen tomorrow, right now we’re at record-breaking pace in the stock market,” he boomed.
Rep. Andy Barr, R-Ky., who serves on the Financial Services Committee, said that he is more or less taking corporate executives at their word, noting that they had promised Congress that they will reduce corporate inversions as a result of the bill.
“The corporate executives that we have talked to who are at risk of inverting and moving jobs and investment overseas, they have told us that this is indispensable legislation to preventing that from going forward,” he said. “The mergers and acquisitions are happening now because of the broken tax code that we have.” An inversion occurs when a company takes over a smaller one offshore merely for the tax advantages.
He did concede that we will see M&A activity, but that it will be what he perceives to be the good kind. “Of course there’s going to be mergers and acquisitions whenever you have a growing economy, but they’re going to be healthy. They’re not going to be unhealthy mergers and acquisitions that are associated with a non-competitive corporate tax system,” he said.
Other House Republicans just didn’t have an answer about the possibility of stock buysbacks and mergers.
“Talk to a Ways and Means [Committee member], I don’t know anything about [that],” Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., responded when asked.
Upton is contemplating a bid for Senate.