NEW YORK – More than 75 U.S. firms announced plans to initiate or extend stock buybacks totaling billions of dollars since Friday in response to last week's attacks on New York and Washington in a show of support for the stock markets and the nation's economy.
Blue-chip firms General Electric Co. and Intel Corp. and other companies with household names such as Walt Disney Co. on Monday joined a growing list of corporations that set new stock repurchase programs or increased existing ones.
The buybacks aim to buoy sinking stocks prices after last week's devastating attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Still, after a four-day market closure, shares on the New York Stock Exchange and the Nasdaq fell on fears of a global recession.
``I don't think these repurchases will boost the economy, but they can certainly lend some support to stock prices here,'' said PNC Advisors chief investment strategist Jeff Kleintop.
``Most of these shares have been weak for a while, so it's probably a good time to buy regardless of the tragedy that occurred,'' he said.
Thousands of people remained buried in the rubble in downtown Manhattan, where the Trade Center's two 110-story twin towers stood only a week ago, and smoke still rose from the site as firemen, construction and iron workers and others worked in the rescue and recovery mission.
In a bold move to shore up confidence in the economy and spur economic growth, the U.S. Federal Reserve cut two key interest rates by half a percentage point, a move that was followed in Europe and Canada. Major U.S. banks also cut their prime lending rate for their most credit-worthy customers.
Monday's buyback announcements followed others by corporate
giants such as drugmaker Pfizer Inc., banking group FleetBoston Financial Corp. and food and beverage firm PepsiCo Inc. Several companies, including networking firm 3Com Corp., pointed specifically to last week's attacks for the decision to extend repurchases, saying they were confident the United States and its financial markets will rebound.
``We are entering the market today as a clear signal of confidence in our company and the public equity markets,'' 3Com President and CEO Bruce Claflin said. ``The events of last week do not diminish one iota our confidence in the economic and political systems of this country and other free market countries in which we do business.''
'NOT THE CURE'
Despite the Fed moves, the Dow Jones industrial average of 30 blue-chip companies, including GE and Intel, fell 7 percent to 8,929 in late afternoon trading. The broader-gauged Standard & Poor's 500 index was down nearly 5 percent at 1,038.60.
``The fact the market didn't go down quite as bad today than it would have otherwise is unquestionably a positive,'' said Chuck Hill, director of research at First Call. ``But these buybacks are not the cure.''
However, with stock markets floundering, the buybacks can provide a floor.
``They provide some stability or some base for the companies that, I think, was a fairly creative kind of measure for the controlling authorities to suggest,'' said John Davidson, chief investment officer at Circle Trust Co., which oversees $8 billion, adding buybacks ``provide a floor basis to irrational selling.''
The buyback spree was sparked on Friday, when securities regulators set emergency trading rules that allow publicly traded companies to repurchase their shares without meeting the usual volume and timing restrictions.
Companies may also repurchase shares without adverse accounting consequences.
So far, FleetBoston's buyback ranks as the largest at $4 billion, while several firms said they planned to extend or increase existing repurchase plans.
Under regular Securities and Exchange Commission rules, corporations are restricted from buying back their own shares under certain circumstances, and buybacks are not allowed at the market open and near the close.
Repurchasing stock reduces the number of shares outstanding a company has, and increases the firm's earnings per share because profits are then spread across fewer shares. That can, in turn, help boost the stock price.
For companies that award many stock options to employees, buybacks can also offset the dilution caused by the exercise of those options.
PNC's Kleintop said that, at a time of uncertainly, it is difficult for companies to try to calm investors' fears because it is too early to forecast their vulnerability to what has occurred.
``All they can really do is buy their stock,'' he said.