Bob Doll at Nuveen Investments discusses the likely impact of tax cuts in the US:
Is it even a good idea to enact tax cuts at this point in the economic cycle? After all, growth has picked up, unemployment is at a 17-year low and capacity utilization is high. It’s reasonable to wonder whether tax cuts spur inflation higher rather than boost economic growth. We agree that inflation is likely to move modestly higher next year (more so if tax rates are reduced), but lower tax rates will likely improve productivity and benefit the economy.
Tax cuts are unlikely to have a significant impact on inflation or productivity other than through indirect stimulation of new investment and job creation.
…..If the corporate tax rate is reduced from 35% to 20%, we estimate this would increase S&P 500 earnings-per-share between $12 and $15 annually. Companies could also see an additional boost in the form of earnings repatriation. It’s possible (and even likely) that some companies would use these earnings benefits to lower prices to increase market share, so some gains may be “competed away.” But we think an overall boost in profits and earnings is likely.
That would amount to an annual increase of between 10 and 13 percent in S&P 500 earnings per share (based on a forecast $114.45 EPS for calendar 2017). Companies that invest in building market share would expect a return on that investment by way of increased growth which would still benefit future earnings streams.
Furthermore, if U.S. companies finally bring their overseas earnings home in a tax-effective manner, it’s fair to wonder what they would do with their cash windfalls. Should this happen, we expect increases in balance sheet improvements, more hiring, a rise in capital expenditures, dividend increases, higher levels of share buybacks and an increase in merger and acquisition activity. All of these actions would be a positive for corporate health and equity prices.
I would expect a big increase in stock buybacks as that will boost stock prices and have a direct impact on executive bonuses. Mergers and acquisitions have less certain outcomes and are likely to be secondary, while new investment and job creation will most likely get the short straw.
Ed Yardeni highlights that a surge in dividends and share buybacks is driving the current bull market:
Most importantly, during the current earnings season, US corporations continue to announce dividend increases and more share buybacks. Previously, I’ve shown that this corporate cash flow into the stock market–which totaled $2.1 trillion for the S&P 500 since stock prices bottomed during Q1-2009 through Q4-2012–has been driving the bull market since it began.
I have one concern: is this surge sustainable or was it precipitated by an increase in marginal tax rates for top income-earners and likely to slow along with earnings?
View chart at Dr. Ed's Blog: Dividends, Buybacks, & the Bull Market (excerpt).
Cullen Roche quotes David Rosenberg:
The Fed has also completely altered the relationship between stocks and bonds by nurturing an environment of ever deeper negative real interest rates. Therein lies the rub. The economy and earnings are weak, and getting weaker, but the interest rate used to discount the future earnings stream keeps getting more and more negative, and that in turn raises future profit expectations.
Cullen also refers to the spread between the S&P 500 dividend yield and the 5-year Treasury Note yield which has widened to 170 basis points (1.70%). What he has not considered is the upsurge in share buybacks over the last decade as a tax efficient alternative to dividends — which means the dividend yield is understated. The spread should be even wider.
via PRAGMATIC CAPITALISM – David Rosenberg: The Most Compelling Argument for Equities.
Historically the S&P 500 was considered overbought — and ripe for a bear market — when the dividend yield dropped below 3 percent. A surge in share buybacks in the past two decades, however, disrupted this relationship, with the dividend yield falling close to 1.0 percent in the Dotcom era.
What happens when we adjust for share buybacks?
In 2011, S&P 500 share buybacks increased to $409.0 billion. With dividends of $298 billion*, that gives a total cash distribution (dividends and buybacks) of $707 billion for a yield of 5.44 percent. Right in the middle of the 5.0 to 6.0 percent range previously considered typical of an oversold market.
* S&P 500 market capitalization of $12,993 billion at June 29, 2012 multiplied by 2.29 percent
Unfortunately share buybacks fluctuate wildly with the state of the market:
If we omit the highest and lowest readings, and take the average share buyback over the remaining 3 years, it amounts to $349 billion. That would give adjusted total cash distributions of $614 billion and an adjusted yield of 4.98 percent — still close to the oversold range.
Compare to Earnings Yield
The current reported earnings yield of 6.8 percent, however, is way below the highs (10 to 14 percent) of the 1970s and 80s. Current distributions (dividends plus buybacks) amount to 80 percent of current earnings. Payout ratios above 60 percent are considered unsustainable.
My conclusion is that earnings yield offers a more accurate measure of value. And reflects a market that is fairly valued — rather than overbought or oversold — especially when we consider the likelihood of earnings disappointments.