Elizabeth Warren is totally clueless about stock buybacks

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Earlier this month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren blasted corporate share repurchases as “nothing but paper manipulation.” According to the Massachusetts Democrat, when a company buys back its own shares, it merely cheats the system.

“They got a little fluff-and-buff in their stock,” Warren said. “And how did they do that? By taking their excess cash and saying, ‘Geez, we can’t figure out anything to do with this cash. We’re not going to give it back to our investors. We’re going to make the investment decision that the only investment in America that makes any sense is to buy back our own stock.’”

The senator has no clue what she’s talking about.

As with any other capital-allocation decision, purchasing a company’s own shares can be appropriate or inappropriate — depending on the facts. It is often a very sound business decision.

Share repurchases help investors when the purchase price is below the company’s real, intrinsic value, based upon the determination of the most informed people on the planet: the executives of the company itself. In this case, the company is spending one dollar in exchange for something worth more. When a company purchases its shares above intrinsic value, however, it is replacing a dollar for something worth less.

That’s not a hard equation to understand for anyone with an elementary understanding of capital allocation.

According to Warren, however, companies should always issue dividends when they have excess cash, irrespective of the relationship between the company’s intrinsic value and its stock price. But why? Why would a company issue a dividend to investors (which is typically heavily taxed) when the company could, instead, take that money and purchase its own stock at a great price? Taking Warren’s approach robs investors of sound business opportunities and takes money out of their pockets.

As a different Warren (Warren Buffett) understands, it all comes down to price: Repurchases are “sensible for a company when its shares sell at a meaningful discount to conservatively calculated intrinsic value. Indeed disciplined repurchases are the surest way to use funds intelligently: It’s hard to go wrong when you’re buying dollar bills for 80 cents or less.”

Warren Buffett has 80 years of business experience. Elizabeth Warren has none. The Oracle of Omaha knows of what he speaks. The senator from Massachusetts, on the other hand, doesn’t have a clue.

William Cooper is an attorney in California.

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