S&P Global Ratings has lowered Oracle’s credit rating due to the software giant’s aggressive program of stock buybacks.
S&P downgraded the rating on Oracle’s long-term debt to A+’ from ‘AA-‘, noting that the company has “significantly ramped up” buybacks since the passage of U.S. tax reform, with share repurchases totaling $36 billion in fiscal 2019.
The buybacks have boosted Oracle’s adjusted debt-to-EBITDA ratio to nearly 1.4x, up from 0x a year ago and above S&P’s downgrade trigger of 1.25x.
“Although [Oracle] has repaid maturing debt during this period, the shareholder returns in excess of free operating cash-flow generation have led to $18 billion in net debt, up from $6 billion in net cash a year ago and $14 billion in net cash in mid-2017,” S&P said.
Oracle eased the pace of buybacks in the fourth quarter to $6 billion, from $10 billion in each of the previous three quarters. But S&P also revised Oracle’s outlook to negative, reflecting its view that “the current pace of share repurchases will continue in fiscal 2020, and that adjusted leverage could climb to near 2x area as a result.”
Concerns about Oracle’s buyback program have been building on Wall Street, with one analyst in March changing his rating on the stock to “reduce” from “buy.”
“While the company is rewarding shareholders with its capital return program, we believe Oracle is significantly under-investing in R&D compared to peers at the expense of revenue and operating income growth, while also limiting its opportunity to participate in transformative M&A,” Instinet analyst Christopher Eberle said at the time.
In contrast to the hefty buyback spending, Oracle spent only $1.66 billion on capital expenditures in 2019, down from $1.73 billion in 2018.
S&P warned it could further lower Oracle’s rating “if the company’s adjusted leverage exceeds 2x over the next two years as the company engages in large share repurchases. A debt-funded acquisition that pushes leverage over the same level would also be a cause for a downgrade.”