God is a Capitalist

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Who is buying?

The Dow is back over 17,000 and the S&P 500 topped 2,000 again this week. Who is buying at these nose bleed levels? According to Jeffrey Kleintop of LPL Financial the buyers are individual investors and corporations buying back their own stock (Hat tip to Christopher Rowe, Director of Investor Education at The Oxford Club)
Currently, there are six notable trends in buying and selling in the stock market. U.S. stocks are being purchased by corporations and individuals; however, foreigners, hedge funds, institutions and insiders are net sellers.
According to data from FactSet, S&P 500 companies bought back about $160 billion in stock in the first quarter of 2014, and are on pace for an amount this quarter that is close to the all-time high of $172 billion set in the third quarter of 2007. Corporations have been decreasing the amount of shares in the market for 10 straight quarters. Over the past year, this has amounted to about 3% of shares outstanding in the S&P 500. 
Why does this matter? Individual investors tend to pile into the market near the top so that they buy high and sell low. Individuals are a small part of the market, so they function mainly as an indicator that the end is near.

Corporate buying is a much larger segment, large enough to overwhelm institutional selling and cause the market to rise. Corporations are borrowing to purchase their own stocks and pump up returns. This deflates the price/earnings ratio by inflating the earnings per share. So while I'm not a big fan of PE ratios as a guide to investing, corporate buy-backs make the ratio even less worthwhile.

But the main problem with corporate buy-backs is that the corporations are borrowing to buy. That pumps up the price of the stocks, makes management look better and in some cases triggers options and bonuses for them.

Kleintop expects institutional selling to continue. So what happens when profits go south and corporations have trouble making the payments on the loans? It will take out the largest group of buyers in the market this year. Most will have to sell the stocks they bought for a loss. That will accelerate any decline in the stock market that follows a bad earnings reporting season.

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