JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon boasted about his company buying $25.7 billion of its own stock over the past five years, and hinted it could buy back another “big block of stock this year” to further boost share prices.
Stock buybacks (also known as “share repurchases”) are essentially pointless. At their worst, buybacks drain resources from productive economic activity to provide a cheap high for Wall Street. Companies buy their own stock to raise the stock price: Removing shares from the market elevates the value of those that remain. Money is funneled from corporate coffers to shareholders. Some of the wealthy people who benefit most from buybacks are corporate CEOs, who generally receive most of their compensation in stock.
Companies could, of course, do other things with their profits. They could raise pay for their employees or provide better benefits.
Buybacks overwhelmingly benefit rich people. Less than 22 percent of Americans own $25,000 or more in stock, even through retirement accounts, according to research from New York University economist Edward N. Wolff. Those who own lots of stock are heavily concentrated at the top. More than 92.8 percent of households making at least $250,000 a year own at least $10,000 in stock, compared with just 19.1 percent of households earning between $25,000 and $49,999. Households in the top 1 percent receive an average of 36 percent of their income from capital gains (stocks, bonds and other financial investments), according to the Congressional Budget Office, while those in the lowest 20 percent receive an average of about 5 percent of their income this way.
To fuel the economy, banks don’t have to make or invent anything that people use. They just have to extend financing to people who want to make stuff, or to people who want to buy it. This isn’t charity ― banks earn big profits by lending. But sometimes they’d rather just buy their own stock. Since the financial crisis, the nation’s six largest banks have spent a combined $157.4 billion buying up their own stock, according to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence. JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo have spent over $36 billion each. All six of those banks declined to comment for this article.
Big banks have a history of not being prudent with buybacks. Citibank swallowed up over $7.5 billion of its own stock in 2006 and 2007, before it needed a government bailout, as University of Massachusetts Lowell economics professor William Lazonick noted in 2008. Morgan Stanley spent over $7 billion on buybacks over the same period before it too needed to be bailed out. Bear Stearns spent $6 billion before needing a government-backed rescue from JPMorgan. Lehman Brothers spent over $5 billion before missing the bailout train and going bankrupt.