Companies repurchase their own shares for various reasons - for example, to try to boost a sagging stock price, to thwart a hostile takeover or to gather up shares to distribute to employees through stock options or awards. Whatever the reason, the effect on stockholders' equity is usually positive, as share values tend to go up after a buyback despite the reduction in cash.
Although a variety of factors can influence shareholder equity, investors will typically see their share values increase when a buyback program begins.
What is Stockholders' Equity?
Every corporation is owned by its stockholders, also called shareholders, and the equity section of a company's balance sheet gives you a sense of what those stockholders actually own. Equity is simply the difference between the company's assets (the stuff it owns) and its liabilities (its debts and obligations to others). In layman's terms, if the company were to sell off all of its assets and pay off its liabilities, then equity would be what's left over for the company's shareholders.
What Happens When a Company Buys Back Stocks?
When a company buys back stock from the public, it is returning a portion of its contributed capital (the money it got when it sold the stock) to shareholders. Those shareholders (the people who bought the public stock) are literally cashing in their equity. As a result, total stockholders' equity declines. It's important to note, however, that the remaining shareholders - those who didn't sell their shares back to the company - don't really "lose" anything when equity declines through buybacks.
After a buyback, there is less equity in the company, but there are also fewer shareholders with a claim on that equity. In fact, by reducing the supply of company stock available in the market, buybacks tend to push share prices up, which leaves the remaining shareholders with stock that's more valuable than before.
Accounting Treatment for a Stock Buyback
A stock buyback is solely a balance sheet transaction, meaning that it doesn't affect the company's revenue or profits. When a company buys back stock, it first reduces its cash account on the asset side of the balance sheet by the amount of the buyback. For example, if a company repurchases 100,000 shares for $50 each, it would subtract $5 million from its cash balance. In the equity section, the company would increase the "treasury stock" account by $5 million.
Treasury stock represents money paid out to reacquire stock; it is a "contra equity" account that offsets contributed capital, so increasing treasury stock $5 million has the effect of reducing net contributed capital $5 million. The balance sheet is back in balance.