Buffett says stock buybacks aren’t ‘immoral,’ but some are ‘stupid’

Legendary investor Warren Buffett largely defended the practice of stock repurchases, noting that there are “lots of crazy things” said about companies buying back their own stock and that it’s “very politically correct” to be against it.

Stock buybacks has long been a source of political fireworks, amid charges they enrich shareholders and top executives rather than employees. Just this week, tech giants Apple (AAPL) and Google parent Alphabet (GOOG)— both flush with cash — announced billions in stock repurchases of their own.

The chairman and CEO Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-A, BRK-B) said that “when it becomes politically correct to do something if you’re a politician, the best thing to do is get on board.”

Airlines that have sought billions in bailouts because of the COVID-19 crisis have come under scrutiny for having doled out billions on purchasing their own stocks. Buffett said Berkshire exited all of its airline stock holdings including American Airlines (AAL), Delta (DAL), United Continental Holdings (UAL), and Southwest Airlines (LUV).

Buffett noted that share repurchases are a means of distributing cash to shareholders, much like dividends.

There shouldn’t be “the slightest taint to it,” he argued. Taking up the cries of how terrible it was that they bought back stocks. You could say it was terrible they paid dividends. They were doing what was intelligent at the time.”

He emphasized that companies should buy back shares if the stock is trading below intrinsic value. He also acknowledged that companies will make mistakes in buying back shares, but it should be a “guiding principle.”

In prior shareholder letters, Buffett has been both a defender and a critic of stock repurchases. In the most recent missive, he said Berkshire will only buy its stock “if a) Charlie and I believe that it is selling for less than it is worth and b) the company, upon completing the repurchase, is left with ample cash.”

He cautioned that calculations of intrinsic value “are far from precise.” He also emphasized that Berkshire will not prop up the stock at any level through buybacks.

Warren Buffett (L), CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger attend the 2019 annual shareholders meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, May 3, 2019. (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)

Buffett also pointed to JPMorgan Chase (JPM) CEO Jamie Dimon as a good example of someone who will, at various times, repurchase shares when it’s “to the advantage of the continuing shareholder to do so.”

The billionaire added: “It should be price-sensitive, obviously…But when the conditions are right, it should be obvious to repurchase shares.”

Vice-chair Greg Abel, who made his debut appearance onstage at the meeting, added that some companies use their financial engineering in a way “that’s extreme” and “too cute” that uses “every ounce of the balance sheet to buy back stock” that doesn’t leave a cushion.

“I think that’s a very unfortunate outcome. That’s why you get backlash,” Abel added.

Buffett added that he’s been a witness to share buyback programs that are “stupid” rather than “immoral.”

He noted that you have to maintain the balance sheet to “leave a margin of error for things you can get surprised with.”

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Julia La Roche is a Correspondent at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter

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