What Is a Buyback?

Stock Buybacks Explained

A company CEO discusses a stock buyback with his colleagues.

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A stock buyback occurs when a company purchases outstanding shares of its own stock with excess cash or borrowed funds. This reduces the total number of shares available, thereby increasing the value of the shares that remain.

Learn how and why companies do stock buybacks, the different types of buybacks, and whether buybacks are good for individual investors.

The CARES Act prohibits stock buybacks for companies that received CARES Act loans or loan guarantees, blocking companies from using relief money to fund stock repurchases. The ban extends for 12 months after the loan is paid off.

What Is a Buyback?

Individuals and institutions purchase shares of stock in a company to see their investment grow through appreciation in the stock price or dividends. Another way for a company to return value to its investors is through stock buybacks.

In a stock buyback, a company purchases shares of its own stock and either permanently removes them from circulation or retains them for resale to the market in the future. Decreasing the total shares of stock outstanding increases the ownership stake that each remaining share of stock represents, thus increasing the value for shareholders.

  • Alternate name: Share repurchase

How Buybacks Work

Stock buyback plans are typically proposed by senior executives and authorized by a company’s board. However, announcing a planned buyback does not guarantee it will occur. In some cases, the target share price a company selects may not be met or a tender offer (discussed later) may not be accepted.

Buybacks are sometimes initiated by a company to prevent a third party from taking ownership of a controlling share of a company’s stock. 

An Example of a Stock Buyback

Say a company has 100,000 shares of stock outstanding at $50 per share for a market capitalization of $5 million. The company has a few good years in a row, but its stock price remains flat and does not reflect that growth. Company executives may feel the stock is undervalued, so they initiate a stock buyback.

The execs use $1 million of cash from net profits to purchase 20,000 shares at the same $50 per share price, decreasing the total outstanding shares to 80,000. Each share no longer represents the 0.001% ownership it did when there were 100,000 available shares. Instead, it represents 0.00125%, which is a 20% increase in value per share.

Types of Buybacks

Open Market 

Companies may repurchase shares on the open market at prescheduled times or when management feels it is the best use of capital.

Tender Offer  

In a tender offer, the company offers to buy back its shares, often at a higher price than what the shares cost on the open market. All tender offers are subject to regulation by the Securities and Exchange Commission. 

A tender offer also may come from a third party that is looking to acquire a controlling share of the company, in which case the transaction is a third-party tender offer and not a buyback.

Alternatives to Buybacks

Stock buybacks are just one way a company can use capital to increase shareholder value. Other options include:

  • Returning cash on hand to investors in the form of dividends
  • Reinvesting capital in research and development
  • Using capital to acquire securities or other companies

Alternatives are an important part of understanding buybacks because buyback programs have come under scrutiny in the past few years.

Buyback Criticism and Drawbacks

Companies sometimes are criticized for share repurchases. In a 2015 interview with the Boston Globe, Sen. Elizabeth Warren characterized buybacks as a “sugar high” that boosts share prices in the short term but doesn’t add long-term value to the company.

Other drawbacks include companies opening up vulnerabilities when they go into debt to purchase stock, and the move may be costly if a company repurchases shares at a price that proves to be overvalued. And, there is some concern that decisions to repurchase shares often are made to enrich corporate executives while slowing stock growth rates and creating long-term declines in wealth.

Shareholders could take issue with buybacks, too, as they may prefer dividends over buybacks, so they control how their returns are reinvested. They can purchase their own additional shares through a dividend reinvestment plan (DRIP) or put the cash to work in some other fashion.

Buybacks vs. Dividends

A dividend payment represents cash in hand for an investor or additional shares of a stock for those who reinvest dividends. A share buyback provides no immediate return to an investor but could prove to increase the company’s value while deferring tax consequences.  

Share Buybacks Dividends
Returns Increases share value through increased EPS Provides real return through cash or additional shares of stock
Taxes Taxed as ordinary income if you held the stock for less than a year. Taxed as long-term capital gains if held for at least a year, in which case those making less than $80,000 may not pay any taxes. Often taxed as ordinary income, resulting in higher tax rates compared to capital gains taxes.
Investor liquidity Lock investors into the fortunes of the company. Provide investors the option to use the cash as income or invest somewhere else

While stock repurchasing and dividends are often seen as competing options, companies can use both to offer value to investors. 

“We actually think that dividends versus share buybacks is something of a false dichotomy,” Morningstar strategist Dan Lefkovitz said in a company video about buybacks. “The fact is that many companies these days do both… Share buybacks have become a lot more prominent and have, in fact, eclipsed dividends as a means of returning cash to shareholders.”

What a Buyback Means for Individual Investors

Whether a share buyback is good or bad from the perspective of an individual investor is not a straightforward question, and certainly not one that can be answered at the time that a company initiates a share buyback. The variables mentioned in this article—the share price at the time of a purchase, whether more attractive investment options existed, whether an investor prefers dividends—all factor into the ultimate answer.

Key Takeaways

  • A stock buyback occurs when a company purchases outstanding shares of its own stock with excess cash or borrowed funds.
  • A buyback increases the value of outstanding shares by reducing the number of total shares on the market, which increases the earnings per share (EPS).
  • One alternative to repurchasing shares of its own stock is to pay dividends to investors, which can be in the form of cash or additional shares of stock.
  • A buyback that is poorly timed—when the share price is overvalued—will ultimately prove detrimental for the company and for investors.