By Makiko Yamazaki and Junko Fujita
TOKYO (Reuters) - Sony Corp announced its first-ever major share buyback on Friday, worth 100 billion yen ($910 million), helping its stock recover from a hammering days earlier when investors freaked over lacklustre earnings.
The announcement marked Japan's second major buyback this week after tech investor SoftBank Group Corp scheduled the repurchase of 600 billion yen in shares using proceeds from the IPO of its telecoms unit, sending its stock price soaring.
Japanese firms have been increasing buybacks as investors call for higher returns in a country not known for showering its shareholders in riches. The government has also chimed in, hoping higher returns will attract more foreign money to Japan.
The amount of buybacks announced by listed companies has jumped around 2.5 times over the past five years, according to financial data service firm I-N Information Systems.
Sony said its buyback, its first ever aimed at boosting shareholder returns, will be equivalent to 2.36 percent of its outstanding shares and will be conducted through March 22. Its shares closed 4 percent higher at 4,906 yen on Friday.
"Our financial health has improved enough to conduct the repurchases," a Sony spokesman said, adding that recently low share prices were also a factor in its decision.
Sony shares plunged 14 percent to their lowest in over a year after the firm reported sagging numbers in its previously thriving gaming business. Sony also cut its outlook for imaging sensors, citing weakness in the global smartphone market.
Analysts nevertheless applaud Sony's turnaround in the past few years spearheaded by Kenichiro Yoshida, first as chief financial officer and, since last year, as chief executive. The firm struggled for profitability as its consumer electronics business lost market share to Asian rivals, before reinventing itself as an entertainment firm with stable revenue from music content and gaming.
Hiroyasu Nishikawa, senior analyst at IwaiCosmo Securities, said the buyback showed how Sony had become more sensitive to investors in recent years.
"This announcement was well timed, and it shows it's watching the market very well," he said. "In the past few years Sony gradually started recovering what it'd lost in the previous 20, 25 years. This latest move is one that's attuned to the stock market."
Sony has been steadily increasing shareholder return through higher dividends over the last couple of years, paying 7.09 percent of its profit in dividend in the last fiscal year, Refinitiv data showed. That compared with 22.5 percent at U.S. tech giant Apple Inc.
Stephen Givens, a corporate lawyer based in Tokyo, said while Sony's and SoftBank's buybacks may have been aimed shoring up stock prices, they were a part of the trend of Japanese firms seeing the advantages of buybacks compared with cash dividends.
"A stock buyback gives shareholders a choice to sell out or stay invested, whereas a dividend forces all shareholders not only to disinvest but to pay tax at higher rates on the cash dividend than they would pay if they sold their stock back to the company," he said.
($1 = 109.7700 yen)
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