It's about to get a lot easier to bet on the backbone of the stock market – Business Insider

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spine backboneShare buybacks have served as the backbone of the stock market over the past eight years. Reuters / Jason Lee

The world’s biggest provider of exchange-traded funds is giving US investors a new way to bet on companies that repurchase their own shares.

iShares, the ETF business within the investment titan BlackRock, just filed a registration statement with the US Securities and Exchange Commission for a fund designed to track stocks with a history of share buybacks and dividend payments.

The iShares US Dividend and Buyback ETF (ticker to be determined) is designed to track the Morningstar US Dividend and Buyback Index, which provides exposure to the companies with the largest dollar value spent on the two activities.

While a healthy handful of dividend-focused ETFs are already available for trading in the US, it’s the buyback component of the new iShares fund that’s intriguing. For the entire eight-year bull market, repurchases have served as a handy backstop for companies, serving as a reliable driver of stock returns.

Ultimately, they’re a win-win for corporations that want to push their stock higher by reducing shares outstanding while also signaling to the market that they see shares as undervalued. And, perhaps most important, it’s a tactic that can generate returns during lean times, as it did during the S&P 500’s five-quarter earnings slump, a period that saw the index still grind out a 1.5% gain.

It’s easy to see why investors would want exposure to companies that are repurchasing shares. During the bull market, the S&P 500 Buyback Index — which consists of the 100 companies with the highest ratio of cash spent on buybacks versus total market cap — has surged 417%, far outpacing the benchmark S&P’s 266% gain.

spx buybacks vs spxCompanies spending the most on buybacks have far outpaced the benchmark S&P 500 during the bull market. Business Insider / Andy Kiersz, data from Bloomberg

This is not to say that iShares is the first provider to offer a buyback-focused ETF. There’s also the $1.3 billion PowerShares Buyback Achievers Portfolio, which tracks an index of US companies that have repurchased at least 5% of their shares outstanding over the past 12 months.

Not to mention the $139 million AdvisorShares Wilshire Buyback ETF, which uses research from Wilshire Associates to invest in companies that aren’t increasing leverage and have positive cash flow.

And there’s the SPDR S&P 500 Buyback ETF, which is essentially a nonstarter with a market cap of just $8.6 million.

Even with these buyback-focused ETFs already in existence, it’s still significant that BlackRock iShares, the biggest fund provider, is taking an interest in the investment strategy.