No, Trump's Tax Windfall Won't All Be Blown on S&P 500 Buybacks

(Bloomberg) -- One drama ends and another begins. Now that companies have all that money coming from Donald Trump’s tax overhaul, what are they going to do with it?

It’s potentially a divisive issue. With corporate rates falling to 21 percent from 35 percent, opponents predict executives will use the windfall to shower money on shareholders through buybacks. Trump’s vision of freed up cash coursing through the economy as new investment will prove a costly delusion, they say.

One constituency that doesn’t subscribe to this view is equity analysts, at least according to their work on individual companies. A top-down analysis of thousands of companies shows that Wall Street firms expect managers will use the money to show plants and equipment some love as capital investment.

Monthly capex layouts for S&P 500 firms will reach a two-year high of $78 billion in 2018, the estimates show. Companies now spend about $71 billion a month, a level virtually unchanged since late last year. Passage of the tax cuts seems to have pushed Wall Street to boost its forecasts faster than corporates increase their actual spending. The gap between the projections and actual outlays is now the widest since August.

No, Trump's Tax Windfall Won't All Be Blown on S&P 500 Buybacks

Sure, analysts could be wrong. They’ve been boosting their capex forecasts since mid-2016, only to see corporate executives trim it over that stretch.

That was before approval of the bill, though, which along with a cut in the corporate rate tweaks the tax code in ways that may be favorable for investment. Before the tax reform, companies that spent, say, $100 on a new printer, had to deduct the expense over its useful life of about five years. The new legislation will let them expense the entire sum at once.

That could mean additional millions in free cash flows for companies that are already benefiting from the 40 percent reduction in the corporate levy. About 36 percent of corporate executives plan to increase capital investment in 2018, according to a survey compiled by Evercore ISI, four times more than in 2016.

“After a more or less anemic growth in capital spending, 2018 can be the year that makes a difference,” said Walter Todd, Greenwood Capital chief investment officer. “The tax reform gives a strong incentive for companies to invest more in growth.”

Companies from AT&T Inc. to Comcast Corp. have outlined increased spending on U.S. infrastructure. But by and large it’s too early to know for sure how the tax overhaul will play out.

No, Trump's Tax Windfall Won't All Be Blown on S&P 500 Buybacks

A pick-up in corporate spending doesn’t mean corporate buybacks are going away. Far from it. In one of the more extreme estimates, the overhaul could trigger a 70 percent increase in buybacks to around $875 billion for S&P 500 companies, according to Bloomberg Intelligence show.

For some analysts, the tax reform isn’t the only driver behind a projected increase in buybacks. Capital expenditures lag behind growth in the equity index by about six months, according to Dennis DeBusschere, head of portfolio strategy at Evercore ISI. Under this theory the 20 percent gain in the S&P 500 this year will itself unleash investing in 2018.

“Better normal market growth over the course of the second half of 2017 suggests stronger capex in 2018,” he said in a research note last week. Even though capex has been slowly edging higher, its rate of growth is still below the long-term median of 6.3 percent, he said.

Investors have evinced a preference for high-capex stocks. Shares of companies with the most capital spending relative to market value are up 34 percent so far this year, compared with a 22 percent return for those that spend the most on repurchases and dividends, data compiled by Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Bloomberg show.

No, Trump's Tax Windfall Won't All Be Blown on S&P 500 Buybacks

“We are on the verge of a huge tax overhaul, and the chances are high that we could finally see a pick-up in the S&P companies increasing their capital spending,” said Tim Ghriskey, managing director at Solaris Asset Management. “The outlook is rather bright.”

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.