With the Fed having tapered its liquidity injections into the stock market from $85 billion to "only" $45 billion per month, retail investors getting burned by the recent high beta and momentum stock flame out and "greatly unrotating" into the renewed safety of bonds, not to mention a churning market that until last week was unchanged for the year, and hedge funds ever shorter into this latest ramp, many are asking themselves: who is buying?
Here is the answer.
According to the most recent CapitalIQ data, the single biggest buyer of stocks in the first quarter were none other than the companies of the S&P500 itself, which cumulatively repurchased a whopping $160 billion of their own stock in the first quarter!
Should the Q1 pace of buybacks persist into Q2 which has just one month left before it too enters the history books, the LTM period as of June 30, 2014 will be the greatest annual buyback tally in market history.
And now for the twist.
Unlike traditional investors who at least pretend to try to buy low and sell high, companies, who are simply buying back their own stock to reduce their outstanding stock float, have virtually zero cost considerations: if the corner office knows sales and Net Income (not EPS) will be weak in the quarter, they will tell their favorite broker to purchase $X billion of their shares with no regard for price: the only prerogative is to reduce the amount of shares outstanding and make the S in EPS lower, thus boosting the overall fraction in order to beat estimates for one more quarter.
Compounding this indiscriminate buying frenzy is that ever more companies (coughaaplecough... and IBM of course) are forced to issue debt in order to fund their repurchases. So since the cash flow statement merely acts as a pass-through vehicle and under ZIRP companies with Crap balance sheets are in fact rewarded (as even Bloomberg noted earlier) the actual risk of the company mispricing its stock buyback entry point is borne by the bond buyer who in chasing yield (with other people's money) serves as the funding source for these buybacks.
In short, corporate CEOs and CFOs couldn't care less if your friendly Wall Street broker uses the repurchase allocation to buyback the stock at all time highs.
In fact, since a vast majority of executive compensation agreements are tied to company stock "performance" C-suites are perversely happy if their own corporate cash is used to buy the stock near or at all time highs: after all management year end bonus will simply benefit that much more, while keeping activist investors delighted (and away from the embarrassing public spotlight).
So the next time someone asks who keeps on buying stock despite all the negative newsflow, despite the bond yield sliding ever lower despite relentless broken-record pleas that a "recovery is just around the corner", and with vol near all time lows confirming peak complacency... now you know.
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Want more data? Here is buyback activity by year. While the 2007 S&P500 buyback record of just over $560 billion is safe for a few more weeks, should companies buyback as much stock in Q2 as they did in Q1 2014, then the Q2 2014 LTM buyback total will rise an all time high:
Don't forget: there is no such thing as a free lunch, bought with stock buybacks or otherwise. Contrary to all the lies you may have heard, corporate debt - both total and net - is now at an all time high!
Finally, these are the companies that are the most aggressive repurchasers of their own stock, or said otherwise, the companies that have no organic use for the cash and have zero ideas how to grow their top and bottom line or what capital projects to invest their excess capital, they only have stock buybacks as an option to give the impression of "growth."