By reducing the number of shares in circulation and driving up a company's stock value, corporate share buybacks tend to mainly benefit investors who continue to hold the company's shares, as well as company executives whose pay is often tied to the value of their share price. Some economists say gains in the stock market are overwhelmingly concentrated for the rich.
The $2.8 billion corporate share buyback dwarfs the estimated $48 million cost of the bank's wage hikes and one-time bonuses this year. (That gap will close somewhat in upcoming years, as the buyback is a one-time expenditure and the company will continue to pay out the increased wages.)
Headquartered in Cincinnati, Fifth Third's moves come amid a debate over the GOP tax law, which supporters say is delivering broad benefits throughout the economy and critics say is helping corporate stockholders far more than American workers.
The tax law, which is projected to cut federal revenue by more than $1 trillion, centered on permanently slashing the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent and temporarily lowering income taxes for most American taxpayers.
U.S. economic growth came in slower than expected at the end of 2017, but the economy still grew at a robust pace amid low inflation and strong private investment.
The flashy corporate announcements about the tax law's benefits have overshadowed another issue that Democrats say merits more attention: low wages.
At a news conference in the Capitol last month, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) released a report showing that 27 of the biggest American businesses had plowed nearly $100 billion into stock buybacks since the law’s passage.
“It's been 40 days and 40 nights since the bill passed, and we have seen a biblical flood in stock buybacks,” Whitehouse said at the time. “We don't know where this is going to end. We do know it's great for shareholders and CEOs, whose compensation often rides on share prices.”
Conservatives say stock buybacks create other economic value.
“These buybacks don't disappear into a hole. The money tends to go back into the financial sector and business investment,” said Brian Riedl, of the Manhattan Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank. “In the short term, this is a form of reprogramming investments in the economy. And, in the long term, the business will eventually ramp up their investments.”
Some Wall Street analysts say the corporate buybacks are business as usual. “Of course companies will buy back shares — that’s what they do,” said Karyn Cavanaugh, senior market strategist at Voya Investment Management. “Companies had good earnings, and investors will say: ‘You’re not beholden to the world, you’re beholden to the shareholders.’ ”
The effects of the tax law are unlikely to be known for several years. Wyden has sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office asking for an additional report tracking the tax law's impact, including on stock buybacks and on corporate repatriation.
For Fifth Third, the payoffs to both corporate shareholders and workers have occurred quickly. In December, the company announced wage boosts for about 3,000 hourly workers, and a one-time bonus of $1,000 for 13,500 workers distributed at the end of 2017. Sean Parker, a company spokesman, noted in an email that the bank authorized buybacks in 2016.
Earlier this month, Trump shared a stage with Fifth Third chief executive Greg Carmichael for a news event at a cylinder factory in Blue Ash, Ohio. “Greg, please step up,” Trump said. “Tell us what you’re doing, with respect to all of those incredible workers. You have 14,000 of your employees, and you’re doing something very special for them, so I’d like to hear it.”
“We thank you for your efforts and your leadership in bringing tax reform to America,” Carmichael said. “At Fifth Third Bank, we’re already feeling the effects of the tax benefit. And we’re working to pass those benefits on to our employees.”