A brief pause in the pace of companies buying back their own stock likely will reverse in 2015, with companies expected to crank up the repurchase machine.
Buybacks probably will increase 18 percent to $707 billion next year, according to an analysis from Goldman Sachs that also projects only a modest growth in business investment.
The reason for the trend is pretty simple: For most of the time since the financial crisis ended and the stock market began its run to a series of record levels, investors have provided much better treatment to companies that have returned cash rather than plowed it back into operations.
While it's not particularly good news for those looking for organic economic growth, it probably does bode well for hopes of a continued bull market run.
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"Positive macro and micro drivers have jointly supported the 9 percent surge in the () index during the past few weeks," Goldman strategist David Kostin and others wrote in a note to clients. "We expect both trends will persist. Investors should own firms with high U.S.-revenue exposure and those with high repurchase yields."
Companies that focus more on buybacks have outperformed those that focus on capital expenditures for most of the recovery, but a divergence showed during the spring and summer when capex won out. However, that trend has reversed since September, and Goldman expects it to continue.
"Since the start of (the fourth quarter), a sector-neutral basket of 50 stocks with the highest buyback yields has outpaced the S&P 500," Kostin wrote. "From a strategic perspective, buybacks have been the largest source of overall U.S. equity demand in recent years."
In relative terms, buybacks are expected to increase 18 percent in 2015 to $707 billion, according to Goldman's projections. Though the current annualized pace for capex—at about $2.1 trillion, according to the latest Bureau of Economic Analysis figures—outpaces the aggregate total for buybacks, the buyback pace is far ahead.
After popping 9.7 percent higher in the second quarter, the pace of the capex increase slowed to 5.5 percent in the third quarter. Goldman expects declining oil prices will sap capex activity at energy firms, resulting in just a 6 percent gain for 2015 even as nonfinancial companies sit on nearly $1.9 trillion in cash.
The pace of stock buybacks actually had declined through the first half of 2014, amounting to $539.3 billion but falling 1.1 percent annualized for the second quarter, according to FactSet. That was the first annualized drop in repurchases in nearly two years and the biggest quarterly decline, at 22.9 percent, since the fourth quarter of 2011.