There’s a small cause-and-effect mystery in the interaction between share prices and share buybacks. On the one hand, when a company buys back stock, that should make the remaining shares more valuable, on reasoning both fundamental-ish (EPS is up!) and technical-ish (more buyers than sellers!). On the other hand, issuers seem to view their own shares as Veblen goods: the higher the price, the more they want to buy.1 So it’s a little hard to know whether the market is reaching record highs (in part) because companies are spending record amounts of money buying back their stock, or vice versa. The first explanation mostly makes sense, and the second mostly doesn’t, which is a good argument for the second being right.
The first explanation is more popular though. Today the Journal noted that “U.S. companies are showering investors with a record windfall in the form of dividends and share buybacks, helping to propel the stock market’s rally,” and FT Alphaville and others have been talking about de-equitization, as well as the declining attractiveness of listed public equity. So have I, come to think of it.
One possibly relevant question you could ask is: how much is the market shrinking? That seems susceptible to various sorts of answers, as well as various possibly relevant time periods. As it happens, tomorrow marks the four-year anniversary of the market’s hitting a 15-year low, so mazel tov everyone on that. Here’s perhaps a place to start measuring U.S. equity market shrinkage over those four years: