At WisdomTree, we believe that screening and weighting equity markets based on fundamentals such as dividends or earnings can potentially help produce higher total and risk-adjusted returns over a complete market cycle. One of the most important elements of a fundamentally weighted index is the annual rebalance process, where the index screens the eligible universe and then weights those securities based on their fundamentals. In essence, the process takes a detailed look at the relationship between the underlying fundamentals and price performance and tilts weight to lower-priced segments of the market.
Below we look at how the net buyback yield changes when you screen and weight U.S. equity markets by firms’ profitability instead of market cap.
Earnings Weighting vs. Market Cap Weighting
The WisdomTree Earnings Index consistently had a higher net buyback ratio than did a market cap-weighted universe consisting of the 3,000 largest securities by market cap.
The WisdomTree Earnings Index averaged a net buyback yield of 2.2% over the period, compared to just 1.1% for the market cap peer universe.
We believe that having an annual profitability screen for inclusion in the WisdomTree Earnings Index helps avoid speculative and unprofitable smaller-capitalization firms that have a tendency to raise capital by periodically issuing new shares. The earnings-weighted approach that tilts weight to more profitable firms can also be a reason the weighted average net buyback yield is higher.
The chart below looks at the net buyback yield on a universe of the lowest price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio stocks within the 3,000 largest stocks by market cap and contrasts that with the net buyback yield on the highest P/E ratio stocks.
Net Buyback Yield by P/E Ratio
If corporate America responds well to incentives, the higher-priced basket would issue more shares (given that their stocks are high priced and issuing more of them would be an effective way to raise growth capital) and the lower-priced basket would issue fewer shares or actually buy back shares to reduce their shares outstanding and thus power their earnings-per-share growth.
What we see in the data is the higher-priced universe buys back fewer share, and instead issues more shares (having more companies with negative net buyback yields).
Why Earnings Weight
Going back to the WisdomTree Earnings Index in the first chart—weighting by Earnings Stream is essentially tilting weight from a market cap-weighted scheme to over-weight those companies with below average P/E ratios and to under-weight those companies with high P/E ratios. The Earnings Stream can be defined as earnings per share times shares outstanding or market cap x earnings yield (which is equivalent to 1/PE ratio).
Tilting weight to the higher-earnings-yield stocks by earnings weighting thus is one effective way to tilt the net buyback yield balance in one’s favor. Companies reducing shares outstanding are essentially locking in earnings-per-share growth by reducing their share count, while companies that are issuing more shares are creating a higher hurdle to overcome to achieve earnings-per-share growth.
There is a philosophical debate about the motivations for all the buybacks we are seeing today as well as fears that companies are failing to reinvest for future growth (or that they just see no growth opportunities, hence all the dividends and buybacks).
One thing is clear to us from the data: the lower-priced stocks issue fewer shares, and the more expensive stocks issue more shares (and have lower net buyback yields). This can be especially true in the small-cap space, as we will discuss in a future blog post. The consistently greater-than 2% net buyback yields seen on the WisdomTree Earnings Index over the last five years, combined with 2% dividend yields on this basket today, provides critical valuation support and also helps explain why we think the earnings-weighted approach can add value over time.