Companies Buy Back Stock in Slump

Fluor, Softbank and Huntsman all plan to repurchase shares.

Fluor Corp., Softbank Corp. and Huntsman Corp. are buying back shares to take advantage of a worldwide market slump they say has made their stocks too cheap.

“We’re in the markets starting today buying back shares,”D. Michael Steuert, chief financial officer of Irving, Texas-based Fluor, said on a conference call today. “At these price levels, we think the company is tremendously undervalued.”

The MSCI AC World Index has dropped 11 percent this month as stockholders seek safer investments amid prospects of another recession. U.S. stocks today jumped the most in more than two years, rebounding from the worst drop since 2008, as the Federal Reserve vowed to keep interest rates near zero through mid-2013 to safeguard the economic recovery.

“The buyback sends a positive symbol to the market, people say ‘Gee, they must believe,’” said Robert S. Kaplan, a professor of management practices at Harvard Business School and former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. vice chairman. “But companies don’t just buy back stock for symbolic reasons. Many companies are well-capitalized and they have the dry powder to do this.”

Executives worldwide are adding or accelerating buybacks, which may help to shore up prices. In addition to Fluor, the largest publicly traded U.S. construction company, Tokyo-based Softbank said it would spend as much as 20 billion yen ($259 million) to buy its own shares. Softbank is the exclusive provider of Apple Inc.’s iPhone in Japan.

 

'Ridiculously Low'
Huntsman Chief Executive Officer Peter Huntsman, in an interview, said he spent $1.1 million of his own money to buy 100,000 shares of the company yesterday because the stock price is “ridiculously low.” The Salt Lake City-based chemicals maker said Aug. 5 it would spend as much as $100 million on a buyback.

Taiwan’s Financial Supervisory Commission today urged companies to repurchase shares to prevent stock prices from“falling irrationally.” Silicon Integrated Systems Corp., a chipset maker based in Hsinchu, Taiwan, agreed to buy back as many as 60 million shares, or 8.77 percent of its total outstanding, as the shares hit a 52-week low today.

“We’ve saved our eggs for a rainy day and it does put us in a position where we can be opportunistic,” John Schnatter, chief executive officer of Papa John’s International Inc., said in an interview. “We can buy back stock.”

The Louisville, Kentucky-based pizza-delivery chain bought back $22 million in stock last quarter and is authorized to buy another $57 million, Schnatter said.

 

Conserving Cash
Kaplan, the Harvard professor, said the focus over the past few days at companies he advises has been on trying to get a measure of how serious the situation is over the next several weeks. Kaplan is also a member of the investment advisory committee at Mountain View, California-based Google Inc.

“Everybody is looking at how much cash they have right now,” said Thomas Stallkamp, principal at Collaborative Management LLC in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Stallkamp also is a director at auto-supplier BorgWarner Inc. and medical-device company Baxter International Inc.

Other U.S. companies announcing new or accelerated buybacks today were Charter Communications Inc., Westwood Holdings Group Inc., Starwood Property Trust Inc. and Jarden Corp. Sunoco Inc., the Philadelphia-based petroleum refiner, was among the biggest programs, with a $500 million authorization.

Southwest Airline Co.’s board on Aug. 5 approved a plan to repurchase as much as $500 million worth of stock. The Dallas-based airline’s shares have tumbled 35 percent this year.

 

Adding Value
A repurchase plan valued at as much $200 million announced by Medicis Pharmaceutical yesterday shows confidence even in a stumbling economy, President Mark Prygocki said in an interview. It’s one way the Scottsdale, Arizona-based maker of wrinkle and acne treatments can benefit from its cash, he said.

“By repurchasing our shares we can provide more value to our shareholders than leaving it in the bank,” Prygocki said.“It is an appealing decision in light of recent market trends.”

Some executives are forgoing buybacks until it’s clearer where the global economy is headed.

“We’re going to feel a lot of pressure in revenue and we’ll have to control cash and costs carefully,” Juan Jose Nieto, chairman of Barcelona-based Service Point Solutions SA, Spain’s only publicly traded document-management company, said in an interview today. “We don’t consider a share buyback, as it’s very difficult to add any value in this kind of context.”

Amerigroup Corp.’s decision yesterday to increase its repurchase authorization wasn’t based on declining equity values, said Julie Trudell, senior vice president for investor relations at the managed-care provider based in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Still, the program will benefit from the market’s recent tumble.

“When we made the decision to increase the authorization, the market wasn’t in this position,” Trudell said. “Now it’s more in our favor.”

 

 

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