The stock market is down 370 points after Monday trading and nobody is really sure where we go from here.
I’ve been around Wall Street for over 20 years and I’ve never seen anxiety like this – people are scared to death and a run on investment accounts - including once staid money market funds – is not out of the question.
The $700 billion bailout prescribed by the White House is no sure thing, either. The idea is to take the bad debt off the books of investment houses and transfer them to the U.S. government – specifically you and me. That would ostensibly free up cash and encourage financial institutions to get back into the business of lending people and businesses money so the economy can get back on its feet after suffering the fiscal equivalent of a heart attack.
Consequently, any news from Wall Street is being greeted with some combination of hope and trepidation by investors. Take Microsoft’s announcement today that it plans on buying back $40 billion growth of company stock. Normally, companies do because their stock has fallen even though financial fundamentals are good.
Microsoft, which also announced that it had received a “Aaa” rating from Standard & Poors, saw it’s stock rise by 6%, as of late afternoon trading. So maybe investors agree that the company’s stock price is too low, and that the buyback is just the recipe needed to jack it back up again.
Tony Goldman, writing on CNBC.com today, believes that we’ll see a run of similar stock buybacks in the technology industry, as companies like Microsoft seek to reassure investors of their relative financial health and well being. “Minutes after Microsoft's news to launch another $40 billion stock buyback and raise its dividend by 18 percent, Hewlett-Packard and Nike both announced major new buybacks of their own. And all of this may serve as a clarion call to other cash rich tech companies to start sharing their wealth.”
“For Microsoft, such a move is an intriguing one: the last time this company embarked on such a major stock purchase, it served to buoy its shares but only for a short term,” he adds. “But it sent a message that while Microsoft might not be the most technologically innovative company, creativity was still alive and well in its finance office. And Wall Street likes what it's hearing, pushing shares up 6 percent on the news. Still a ways to go to get these shares back to where they were, but it's a key step in the right direction.”
Goldman feels that Hewlett-Packard will be next, with a stock buyback program of $8 billion. Apple, too, with a $21 billion stock buyback program is also on the docket, especially if the company stock falls below $140 per share. Historically Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO, has been loathe to dip into company coffers to buy back Apple stock. But at some point the deal becomes too good to pass up.
Buying stock back at a point of relative strength, and not weakness, would indeed likely trigger a bounce-back in tech stocks of large companies like Microsoft, Apple and HP. Hey, it’s not Steve Ballmer’s fault that some guy in Dover, Delaware can’t pay off the bloated mortgage he promised to pay. The fundamentals in the tech sector are still strong – and Microsoft is betting that they are strong enough to withstand the beating the overall market is taking because of the credit catastrophe.