Share buybacks are a decent alternative. For one, they are tax efficient - investors receive a larger portion of cash flow without having to pay Uncle Sam, as he/she would with a portion of the dividend payment. However, share buybacks only make sense if the company believes their shares are trading at a significant discount to intrinsic value. Too often they are utilized instead to "cover up" excessive stock option or restricted stock grants to executives. Where this is not the case, a repurchase announcement can often signal that management believes its stock is undervalued. Who knows more about the business than management itself?
Dividends and share buybacks also provide another security for Magic Formula Investing (MFI) adherents, where many of the uncovered stocks are unknown, un-followed small caps, many with short histories, and several operating overseas. Over the past year or so, MFI has had a tendency to dig up Chinese small-cap stocks, with excellent reported cash flows and balance sheets, but intense allegations of fraud. Share buybacks or dividend payments are bullet-proof evidence that those cash flows are quite real. It offers piece of mind to an investor in a stock.
MFI is designed to dig up excellent companies (high returns on capital) trading at bargain prices (high earnings yield). Under these simple assumptions, it makes sense for these companies to invest their cash flows into buying back stock at low valuations. Here are the companies in MFI's top 50 over 50 million market cap that have returned significant amounts of cash flow to shareholders over the past year or so:
Apollo Group (APOL): $352mm in repurchases over last 9 months.
Aeropostale (ARO): $31mm in repurchases in most recent quarter, $164mm last year.
CSG Systems (CSGS): $33mm in repurchases over the last 6 months.
Deluxe (DLX): $52mm in dividends a year (5.4% yield).
Earthlink (ELNK): $64mm in dividends a year (7.1% yield).
Forest Labs (FRX): $500mm in repurchases last quarter.
H&R Block (HRB): $200mm a year in dividends (4.7% yield), $238mm in repurchases last year.
Lorillard (LO): $307mm in buybacks last 6 months, $630mm in dividends a year (5.4% yield).
PDL Biopharma (PDLI): $60mm in dividends last 6 months, $319mm last year. Royalty company with fluctuating payout.
Pre-Paid Legal (PPD): $5.4mm in buybacks so far this year, $51mm last year.
Raytheon (RTN): $470mm in dividends a year (3.2% yield), $525mm repurchases in last 6 months, $1.2 billion in repurchases last year.
Neutral Tandem (TNDM): $9.5mm in buybacks in last 6 months.
United Online (UNTD): $36mm in dividends a year (7.6% yield), $4mm in buybacks over last 6 months.
USA Mobility (USMO): $22mm in dividends a year (0.50%), $7mm in buybacks last 6 months. Dividend payment declining rapidly, though.
Disclosure: Steve owns APOL, TNDM