Special Report: Buybacks enrich the bosses even when business sags

Thu Dec 10, 2015 12:10pm EST
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By Karen Brettell, David Gaffen and David Rohde

NEW YORK(Reuters) - When health insurer Humana Inc reported worse-than-expected quarterly earnings in late 2014 – including a 21 percent drop in net income – it softened the blow by immediately telling investors it would make a $500 million share repurchase.

In addition to soothing shareholders, the surprise buyback benefited the company’s senior executives. It added around two cents to the company’s annual earnings per share, allowing Humana to surpass its $7.50 EPS target by a single cent and unlocking higher pay for top managers under terms of the company’s compensation agreement.

Thanks to Humana hitting that target, Chief Executive Officer Bruce Broussard earned a $1.68 million bonus for 2014.

Most publicly traded U.S. companies reward top managers for hitting performance targets, meant to tie the interests of managers and shareholders together. At many big companies, those interests are deemed to be best aligned by linking executive performance to earnings per share, along with measures derived from the company’s stock price.

But these metrics may not be solely a reflection of a company’s operating performance. They can be, and often are, influenced through stock repurchases. In addition to cutting the number of a company’s shares outstanding, and thus lifting EPS, buybacks also increase demand for the shares, usually providing a lift to the share price, which affects other performance markers.

As corporate America engages in an unprecedented buyback binge, soaring CEO pay tied to short-term performance measures like EPS is prompting criticism that executives are using stock repurchases to enrich themselves at the expense of long-term corporate health, capital investment and employment.

“We’ve accepted a definition of performance that is narrow and quite possibly inappropriate,” said Rosanna Landis Weaver, program manager of the executive compensation initiative at As You Sow, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that promotes corporate responsibility. Pay for performance as it is often structured creates “very troublesome, problematic incentives that can potentially drive very short-term thinking.”

A Reuters analysis of the companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index found that 255 of those companies reward executives in part by using EPS, while another 28 use other per-share metrics that can be influenced by share buybacks.   Continued...

Former Humana President and CEO Mike McCallister speaks at the Reuters Health Summit in New York, in this November 11, 2009 REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/Files