Big Media Stock Buybacks: Shrewd Strategies, Or Bribes And Manipulation?

With apologies to Bill Maher, here’s a New Rule for Big Media CEOs when they decide to raise their dividends or announce a major new stock-repurchase initiative. They have to stop insisting that it’s a sign of confidence and strength in cases where they’re just bribing investors to keep them from fleeing.

This thought struck me in the Q4 earnings season that’s wrapping up. Just about every big company that fell even a little short of Wall Street’s expectations had a new plan to return cash to shareholders. The explanations were consistent. After CBS missed analysts’ revenue and earnings targetsCEO Les Moonves said his accelerated $1B share repurchase reflects “the great confidence we have in our businesses.” At Time Warnerwhich missed revenue forecasts but beat on earnings — CEO Jeff Bewkes said that it was able to authorize an additional $4B share repurchase and an 11% dividend increase because “we’re at an even stronger position today than we were a year ago.” Then there’s Comcast, which just slightly missed revenue and earnings expectations but raised its dividend by 20% and agreed to repurchase $2B of stock, while announcing that it will pay $16.7B for General Electric’s 49% of NBCUniversal. The moves demonstrate “confidence and optimism in the future of all our businesses,” CEO Brian Roberts said. 

Related: Did Les Moonves’ Salesmanship Help CBS Shares Hit A Record High Today?

They’re right in this sense: Most Big Media companies are part of pay TV oligopolies that still have scandalous power to set and raise prices — mostly by requiring people who want to keep up with the national conversation to pay for dozens of channels that they never watch. Execs also had encouraging reports about current concerns. Generally speaking, ad sales picked up in Q4, and TV viewers returned to the major broadcast networks after the dismal opening weeks of the fall primetime season. 

But if executives are so bullish about their companies, then why do they consider it such a great thing to give cash to investors to spend elsewhere? Wouldn’t they demonstrate their faith more persuasively if they used the funds to expand — you know, create jobs — or buy assets in complementary or growing fields? It’s not like we’re still in the depths of the recession when media stocks were such a bargain. CBS shares are more expensive than they’ve been since the end of 2005 when it separated from Viacom. Time Warner’s at a five-year high. And Comcast is at its all-time best. If the investment strategy is to buy assets when the price is high, all I can say is, folks, don’t try this at home. (more…)

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