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Over the past 10 years, tech giant Apple has been the biggest buyback champion, splurging a whopping $239 billion on share repurchases, followed by Exxon Mobil and Microsoft, according to data from Birinyi Associates. The iPhone maker also had six of the 10 largest buybacks in history, the data show. Birinyi has kept an extensive database of stock buybacks going back to 1985.
These companies have come under the spotlight after prominent lawmakers criticized the buyback practice, saying it widens the wealth gap and claiming repurchase programs tend to divert resources away from workers.
Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer of New York and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont are calling for legislation that would prevent companies from buying back their own shares unless they first pay workers at least $15 an hour and offer paid time off and health benefits.
The Democratic proposal came after announced buybacks hit a record of $1.04 trillion in 2018 as the corporate tax cut boosted profits and free cash flow. In the third quarter of 2018, 18 percent of corporate America reduced their outstanding share counts by at least 4 percent, which boosted their earnings per share, according to S&P Dow Jones Indices.
New buyback announcements also edged up in the last quarter of 2018 to the highest level since the first quarter of 2016, according to RBC Capital Markets.
"Our optimism on buybacks offsets our concerns about slowing capex growth. We also think that debt burdens are manageable and expect deleveraging to be a 2019 priority," said Lori Calvasina, RBC's head of U.S. equity strategy.
There hasn't been a lack of supporters for buybacks on Wall Street. Goldman Sachs' former chief executive, Lloyd Blankfein, hit back at the proposal limiting buybacks in a tweet, saying "the money doesn't vanish."
Blankfein and others claim buybacks are another way to give money back to shareholders so it can be put to use in higher-growth areas. But Schumer and Sanders say that because the rich are the biggest owners of stock, it mostly goes into their pockets.