Returning capital to shareholders or not?

Companies trading on the US stock exchange often talk about returning capital to shareholders through a combination of dividends and share buybacks. Swedish companies are, unfortunately, much more narrowly focused on dividends and generally not as active with buybacks to shrink share count and lower the number of outstanding shares.

However, to me it feels disingenuous to use the phrase returning capital to shareholders for the gross value of buybacks when a company is issuing significant amount of stock-based compensation. Only the net amount of share buybacks can really be described as returning capital to shareholders, the buybacks used to neutralize dilution from RSUs or employees options is not really returning capital to shareholders.

Related to this is the discussion about expanding costs for stock-based compensation (RSUs and options) in publically-traded technology companies (note: I believe that employee ownership and options is a crucial aspect to building startups.). I think two ways of addressing overly aggressive stock-based compensation is to 1) insist on companies paying a dividend, even if low, so management teams and board of directors need to consider the impact on cash flow from dilution and 2) not use Adjusted EBITDA excluding share-based compensation as a metric for bonuses, as that misaligns managers and shareholders with regards to costs for employees.

Author: Henrik Torstensson

Partner at Alliance VC. Investing in Nordic early-stage tech startups.

2 thoughts on “Returning capital to shareholders or not?”

  1. I agree, but Swedish companies have a bad habit of buying back shares when the stock price is high and not when it’s low. You would think that the boards would look at Swedish Match to see how it works when you’re in for the long haul.

    1. Indeed they, and many international companies too, have the habit of buying back shares when stock prices are high. Swedish Match was a good example of what buybacks can do to accelerate earnings per share and share price over 20 years.

      Different shareholders have different objectives and tax treatments, but for many stable, slow growing companies a consistent long-term net buyback of 1-2 % would be a major driver to earnings per share over 20 years and leaves room for investments, acquisitions and dividends.

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