These 2 Companies Are Spending Billions to Buy Back Their Own Stock

A healthy cushion of cash is always valued by large, stable companies. Many companies make good use of that cash by buying back their own stock. Just a few weeks into earnings season, we’ve already seen a hefty slate of new stock buyback announcements. That’s where I like to look for value.

It’s obvious to note that the larger the buyback (in relation to shares outstanding), the greater the potential to increase EPS. So I’ve looked at all the companies that have recently announced plans to buy back at least $500 million (and at least 5%) of company stock.

Here’s what I found…

Company (Ticker) Current price Market cap. ($M) Buyback size ($M) % of market cap. 2011
2012 P/E
Intel (INTC) $21.48 $119,000 $10,000 8% 10.2 9.8
AstraZeneca (AZN) $48.90 $69,680 $4,000 6% 7.5 8.1
Coach (COH) $54.09 $16,080 $1,500 9% 18.6 16.4
Ball Corp. (BLL) $71.13 $6,280 $1,420 23% 13.3 12.1
Amphenol (APH) $55.34 $9,680 $1,110 11% 18.0 16.3
Symantec (SYMC) $17.61 $13,560 $1,000 7% 12.7 11.2
Quest Diagnostics (DGX) $56.95 $9,740 $750 8% 13.3 12.1
Assurant (AIZ) $39.23 $4,180 $600 14% 8.0 7.9
Life Technologies (LIFE) $54.29 $10,140 $500 5% 10.1 9.6
Shaw Group (SHAW) $37.77 $3,210 $500 16% 10.8 9.8
AES Group (AES) $12.40 $9,770 $500 5% 13.2 11.1

AstraZeneca (NYSE: AZN)
Companies occasionally use buybacks to make a statement about the confidence in their business prospects. That’s surely the case with this drug giant, which is spending very heavily to find the next blockbusters. To be sure, the company has its detractors: AstraZeneca hasn’t delivered a major new drug recently and had to drop several high-profile drug candidates in 2010 after they generated weak clinical data. That’s why shares trade for less than eight times projected profits.

Company CEO David Brennan is undeterred. He’s been compiling a world-class roster of research and development (R&D) talent and given them support at a time when many other Big Pharma research budgets are being cut, though he acknowledges that current R&D efforts are unlikely to materially boost the top-line for at least another two to three years. The company generated $33 billion in sales in 2010, and is likely to be in the $30-33 billion range for awhile.

#-ad_banner-#Despite the challenges, an increasing number of analysts are starting to think shares represent real value for long-term investors. For starters, they note AstraZeneca dodged a bullet when the Food and Drug Administration decided last summer to extend patent protection for its blockbuster Crestor drug until 2016. In addition, there is one very promising drug in the near-term pipeline: Brilanta, a blood-clotting drug, which has already been approved for sale in Europe and may get the U.S. nod this summer. Analysts think it could be a blockbuster, as it appears to be even more effective than Plavix, which generates more than $6 billion in annual sales.

Equally important, the projected cash flow likely to be generated by AstraZeneca’s existing crop of drugs is substantial: “We see a potential $73 billion as being returned to shareholders over the next 10 years, more than today’s market cap” note analysts at Citigroup who recently raised their rating to “Buy.”

To keep investor attention on the shares, management recently boosted the dividend by 11% and boosted a share buyback to $4 billion. The share count has shrunk for each of the last eight years, and if current buyback plans continue, the company will have reduced the share count by 30% in the 10 years ended 2012. That partially explains why EPS has steadily risen during the past decade, from $1.64 in 2002 to a projected $6.56 in 2011. As noted, earnings growth is likely to flatten for the next few years, though shares should continue to appeal as they carry a 12% free cash flow yield. If CEO Brennan’s aggressive bet on R&D pays off, AstraZeneca may again be in growth mode in a few years while rival drug companies are shrinking.

Symantec (Nasdaq: SYMC)
What do you do if your business throws off gobs of cash but growth prospects are lacking? You buy back stock. Symantec has already taken its share count from 1.02 billion in 2006 to about 800 million. After a just-announced new buyback is complete, the share count should drop below 750 million.

To be sure, this stock is right where it was five years ago, while many rivals have seen their share prices rise well higher. But in that time, Symantec has generated $6.4 billion in free cash flow, which accounts for almost half of its market value.

But shrinking share counts aren’t enough to get investors excited. Instead, they want to see growth, or at least some sort of major move that unlocks value. My colleague Ryan Fuhrmann notes that Symantec looks ripe for a sale of part or all of the business.

That may or may not happen, but analysts at Citigroup think shares are appealing on their own merits. They note that current consensus forecasts appear too low, as Symantec should deliver decent growth in its various businesses in 2011. And they think this tech stock, at 11 times projected 2012 profits, is unlikely to suffer in a market pullback compared to other loftier tech stocks. They see shares rising to $22, or 25% above current levels.

Action to Take –> Buybacks bring an added benefit. If the market swoons and these stocks take a hit, they can buy back even more shares with their allotted funds. That’s why it pays to stick with these names even if times get tough. An even larger reduction in the share count will be the result when shares ultimately rebound.