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Big US companies' buybacks down 4.4 pct in 4Q

NEW YORK (AP) -- Big U.S. companies spent less to buy back their stock in the fourth quarter than in the third, an analysis issued Wednesday shows.

Share repurchases by companies in the Standard & Poor's 500 index totaled $99.1 billion in the October-December quarter, S&P Dow Jones Indices said. That's down 4.4 percent from $103.7 billion in the third quarter. But it's a 13.2 percent increase from $87.6 billion in the final quarter of 2011.

Buybacks remain historically high. They reached a record $172 billion in the third quarter of 2007.

By repurchasing stock, companies reward stockholders by increasing the value of remaining shares. Per-share earnings can increase as income is spread among fewer shares. Buying back stock helps offset the effect of stock sales and paying executives in stock options.

Two big companies which hadn't bought back shares for years — Apple Inc. and Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. — did so in the fourth quarter, S&P Dow Jones Indices noted. Apple spent $1.95 billion and Berkshire spent $1.3 billion.

Information technology companies were the most aggressive in buying back stock. The IT sector recorded $22.8 billion in buybacks, nearly a quarter of the total spending on buybacks by S&P 500 companies.

The five companies with the biggest share repurchases for the quarter were Exxon Mobil Corp., with $5.25 billion; AT&T Inc., $4.38 billion; International Business Machines Corp., $3.01 billion; Oracle Corp., $3 billion; and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., $2.94 billion.

Given their high levels of cash reserves, companies this year likely "will continue to protect their earnings by buying back the number of shares necessary to prevent earnings dilution," Howard Silverblatt, an S&P Dow Jones Indices analyst, said in a statement.