by Jeff Cox
Stock buybacks, which have helped power the 7-year-old bull market, are showing their first signs of retreat in at least three years.
Share repurchases decreased 3.4 percent in the fourth quarter from the previous three-month period and are tracking at a 21-month low in March, according to respective data from S&P Dow Jones Indices and TrimTabs.
If the trend continues, that would mark a major trend shift. Companies have been using reductions in share count as a way to boost earnings profiles, raise stock prices and reward corporate executives. The programs have been seen as a major driver of the market rally, though the extent of the effect has come under scrutiny in recent months.