Is Market Integrity Even a Thing Anymore?

Want to know where markets are going?  Just check Facebook.  The stock, that is.

As I pointed out in March [see: Facebook Flops] the stock is a very reliable indicator of overall market direction.  And, right now, it’s threatening new all-time highs.

But, its accomplishment raises an important question: does it matter how the stock got to where it is?  What about market integrity and price discovery?  Do they matter?

As we’ve discussed, each time FB tagged or dropped through its 200-DMA (the red line below,) the S&P 500 swooned — or even underwent a full-fledged correction.  The 2015-2016 correction is the most obvious.But, FB’s November 2016 dip was potentially more serious.  Not only did the stock drop through its 200-DMA, but it remained there long enough to produce a bearish death cross, where the 50-DMA crosses below the 200-DMA.

The impending death cross could be seen a mile away.  So, after a week of the stock lingering below its 200-DMA, the FB board announced a $6 billion stock buyback plan.  The stock bounced a few times, finally clearing the 200-DMA on the very same day that the death cross occurred.  What better way to convince investors that the death cross wasn’t anything to be concerned about?

Facebook doesn’t publish detailed transaction reports for stock buybacks; but, it seems likely that the shares purchased under the plan were timed to help the stock clear its 200-DMA.FB ran up to new highs, ignoring the 4.23 Fib extension as it had all the others.  A year later, however, it managed to drop back below its 200 DMA.   In the process, it completed a bearish Head & Shoulders pattern that targeted 133-140 — another 17-20% drop on top of the 13% it had already shed.

After dropping through the neckline of the H&S Pattern, the stock couldn’t even manage a full backtest before plunging anew. The dreaded death cross occurred on April 13.  On the 25th, the company announced a $9 billion expansion of the stock repurchase plan.  This was particularly significant, as there was still $4 billion left over from the original $6 billion plan.

The very next day, FB spiked up through its neckline and 200-DMA. Since then, it’s tacked on 25%.  Are any shareholders complaining?  Of course not.  Ditto for the many employees who own shares.  So, what’s the problem?  All’s well that ends well, right?

I suspect most investors would agree with that sentiment.  There has been little outcry, even though 54% of corporate profits — over $5.1 trillion — has been dedicated to buybacks over the past 10 years.

Prior to 1982, buybacks were prohibited.  They were considered a form of market manipulation. After passage of Rule 10b-18, however, corporations were offered a safe harbor as long as they met certain conditions.

Supporters of buybacks say they are beneficial.  Over half of all Americans own stocks, even if indirectly through a 401(k.)

Critics maintain that they are a financial engineering trick, inflating EPS even if profits aren’t actually growing.  Chrisopher Cole of Artemis Capital figures that 40% of EPS growth since 2009 is from share repurchases.

NYU professor Edward Wolff says they benefit the rich more than anyone else, as the top 10% of households own 84% of all stocks.  Yale professor Robert Shiller calls buybacks “smoke and mirrors.”

It’s safe to say that as long as corporate management can borrow money at historically low rates in order to drive their stock higher, the practice will continue.  But, it’s hard to look at a stock like FB without wondering whether market integrity is still a thing.

 

 

 

 

 


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