Finance Column » Your Money This Week » Wall Street hits wrong target

Wall Street hits wrong target

By Gregg Fields ·
Monday, February 14, 2011
Posted 10 am ET

In the old Andy Griffith Show, bumbling deputy Barney Fife kept his power in his breast pocket -- a bullet rarely put in his pistol. Kindly put, he had a problem with misfires. Citizens of the all-American town of Mayberry found it unsettling.

It's mindful of the money Corporate America's been hoarding by the hordes.

With profits, the recession long ago ended. By some estimates, the Standard & Poor's 500 has $1 trillion or so in cash. It could be a magic bullet for the moribund economy if those reserves were deployed in time-honored ways. Building factories, launching ventures and padding expense reports come to mind.

On that front, there's good news and bad. Suddenly, companies are spending so fast you'd think they were on shore leave. Money is no object as they raid corporate coffers to woo the folks they love most -- themselves.

In short, it's stock buyback season. For examples, Big Pharma Pfizer prescribed itself a $5 billion share repurchase program; 3M anted in $7 billion to play shareholder solitaire. Cisco, kid you not, is spending $10 billion.

As President Barack Obama says, this country does big things. In this case, however, someone should explain why.

Certainly, it's simpler to purchase shareholder value than actually build it. Theoretically, buybacks prop up share prices. There are tax advantages to dividends.

But even if buybacks have the best of aims, they're shooting at the wrong target. There are 15 million unemployed people in America. Companies created 36,000 positions last month. It would appear that, in boardrooms, the phrase "share and share alike'' has taken on new meaning. Can the economy recover with Wall Street's and Mayberry's priorities so misaligned?

Perhaps Obama's job czar, GE head Jeffrey Immelt, can divine an answer. In the last two years, his company announced plans for 6,500 new U.S. manufacturing jobs -- and authorized $11.6 billion in stock repurchases.

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