Large U.S. companies are increasingly turning to bond issues to finance share buybacks or dividends, taking advantage of low interest rates and high stock prices, Bloomberg reports.
Standard & Poor’s 500 firms listed buybacks or dividends among the use of proceeds in $58 billion of bond deals in the past three months, the most on record, according to data compiled by Bloomberg and Sundial Capital Research.
Among bond issuers who mentioned one or the other, about 70% identified buybacks as a use of the proceeds and 30% dividends. In total, 65 bond sales from mid-March to mid-June cited the shareholder-friendly activities as uses of the money.
“Companies know the Fed is winding down easy money so a lot are running to the gates using debt to fund repurchase programs,” Rob Leiphart, an analyst at Birinyi Associates, told Bloomberg. “There are a lot of people saying, ‘Who knows what’s next for the market,’ and the buyback program provides flexibility.”
U.S. companies from AT&T to Rite Aid sold almost $500 billion in bonds during the past three months, according to Bloomberg, with the highest-quality companies selling $374 billion in bonds, 21% more than in the same period last year.
Meanwhile, more than $460 billion in stock repurchases were announced during the first five months of 2015, on pace to top last year’s record.
Experts attribute the popularity of buybacks in part to pressure from activist investors. “There’s some fear about activists, and letting shares get to low-enough valuations to be a target,” said Larry Pitkowsky, co-founder and co-managing partner at Goodhaven Capital Management LLC.
“Low interest rates give you a fictitious hurdle to doing things,” he added. “It looks accretive, but what happens when those bonds roll over and they’re at 6 percent instead of 3 percent?”