Companies in the S&P 500 spent $145 billion on buybacks in the third quarter of 2014, according to preliminary numbers from S&P Dow Jones Indexes. That's up about 13% from the same period a year earlier. It's also considerably more than companies spent on dividends, which accounted for $89 billion in the same time period.

Many investors are bullish on buybacks. After all, they boost per-share earnings, which often results in an increase in the stock price. What's not to like? Well, for one, buybacks can sometimes mask unpleasant truths about a company’s business. If you recommend individual stocks for your clients, or advise them about existing stock holdings, you should take a close look at a company’s buyback program.

Consider software giant Microsoft. Despite spending $2.9 billion on buybacks (the fifth-largest share repurchase for index companies in the quarter), Microsoft’s share count actually increased slightly during the period. How could that be? Buybacks are often used to offset shares issued in connection with exercised options. If you only read the press release announcing the buybacks, you may miss that little fact.

You should also look at company revenues to determine if there has been growth. Why revenues and not earnings? Revenue numbers allow less leeway for “adjustments.”  Consider IBM. Although it didn’t make the top 10 in buybacks in the third quarter (it was 13th), the company was able to reduce its share count by 9.2% in the 12 months ended September. However, when you look at revenue, you see that it declined 5.5% in year- over-year comparisons. (It was $22.4 billion in the third quarter of 2014, down from $23.7 billion in the third quarter of 2013.)

Here are the top 10 S&P 500 spenders on buybacks for the third quarter, along with the percentage change in share count from the previous quarter. We’ve also added revenue numbers from 2014’s calendar third quarter and the previous year’s. View the slideshow here —Joseph Lisanti

Sources: S&P Dow Jones Indices, SEC filings

10. Procter & Gamble (PG)

  • Q3 2014 Buybacks: $2.4B
  • Share count change from Q2: -0.13%
  • Revenue Q3 2014: $20.8B
  • Revenue Q3 2013: $20.8B

Procter & Gamble (PG), the maker of Tide, Crest and numerous other household products familiar to consumers the world over, spent $2.4 billion on buybacks in the third quarter. The company’s share count declined 0.13% from the previous quarter. In Q3 of 2014, revenues were $20.79 billion, virtually unchanged from $20.83 billion in the same period a year earlier.
9. Johnson & Johnson (JNJ)

  • Q3 2014 Buybacks: $2.4B
  • Share count change from Q2: -0.34%
  •  Revenue Q3 2014: $18.5B
  • Revenue Q3 2013: $17.6B

Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), the country’s most diversified health care company, spent slightly more than $2.4 billion on buybacks in the most recent period and trimmed its share count by 0.34% from the second quarter. Revenues for the third quarter were $18.5 billion, up 5.1% from the $17.6 billion posted a year earlier.
8. Wells Fargo (WFC)

  • Q3 2014 Buybacks: $2.5B
  • Share count change from Q2: -0.76%
  • Revenue Q3 2014: $21.2B
  • Revenue Q3 2013: $20.5B

Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC), Warren Buffett’s favorite bank (at the end of September, Berkshire Hathaway held $25.1 billion in WFC shares), bought back slightly less than $2.5 billion of its stock in the third quarter, reducing its share count by .76%. The bank’s revenues advanced 3.4% to $21.2 billion in the period from $20.5 billion in the third quarter of 2013.
7. Caterpillar (CAT)

  • Q3 2014 Buybacks: $2.5B
  • Share count change from Q2: -2.43%
  • Revenue Q3 2014: $13.5B
  • Revenue Q3 2013: $13.4B

Caterpillar (CAT), the maker of heavy construction equipment, spent $2.5 billion in the third quarter to achieve a significant 2.43% reduction in share count from the previous quarter. In 12 months between the end of 2013’s third quarter and the most recent one, CAT’s revenues advanced only about 1% from $13.4 billion to $13.5 billion.
6. Merck (MRK)

  • Q3 2014 Buybacks: $2.7B
  • Share count change from Q2: -1.29%
  • Revenue Q3 2014: $10.6B
  • Revenue Q3 2013: $11B

Merck & Co. (MRK), a major producer of prescription pharmaceuticals, bought back $2.7 billion of its own shares in the third quarter. That led to a 1.29% decline in the share count from the second quarter. Total sales fell from $11 billion in 2013’s third quarter to $10.6 billion in the most recent period.
5. Microsoft (MSFT)

  • Q3 2014 Buybacks: $2.9B
  • Share count change from Q2: 0.07%
  • Revenue Q3 2014: $23.2B
  • Revenue Q3 2013: $18.5B

Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), managed to increase its share count by 0.07% during the calendar third quarter, despite buying back $2.9 billion of its own shares. But the software maker’s revenues for the three months ended September surged 25.4% to $23.2 billion from $18.5 billion a year earlier.
4. Exxon Mobil (XOM)

  • Q3 2014 Buybacks: $3B
  • Share count change from Q2: -0.63%
  • Revenue Q3 2014: $103.6B
  • Revenue Q3 2013: $108.4B

Exxon Mobil (XOM) repurchased $3 billion of its stock in the quarter ended September, reducing its share count from the previous quarter by 0.63%. Revenues for the oil and gas giant slid 4.4% from $108.4 billion in the third quarter of 2013 to $103.6 billion in the most recent period.
3. Intel (INTC)

  • Q3 2014 Buybacks: $4.2B
  • Share count change from Q2: -1.52%
  • Revenue Q3 2014: $14.6B
  • Revenue Q3 2013: $13.5B

Intel Corp. (INTC), a major producer of microprocessors, spent $4.2 billion on buybacks in the third quarter, reducing its share count by 1.52% from the second-quarter total. Meanwhile, the company’s revenue rose 8% to $14.6 billion.
2. Monsanto (MON)

  • Q3 2014 Buybacks: $6.2B
  • Share count change from Q2: -4.64%
  • Revenue Q3 2014: $2.6B
  • Revenue Q3 2013: $2.2B

Monsanto Company (MON), an agricultural seed and herbicide provider, repurchased 4.64% of its shares for $6.2 billion in the quarter ended Sept. 30. Revenues for the quarter rose to $2.6 billion from $2.2 billion in the year-earlier period.
1. Apple (AAPL)

  • Q3 2014 Buybacks: $17B
  • Share count change from Q2: -1.32%
  • Revenue Q3 2014: $42.1B
  • Revenue Q3 2013: $37.5B

Apple Inc. (AAPL) spent $17 billion on buybacks during the quarter ended September, reducing its share count by 1.32%. The iPhone maker devoted more cash to buybacks in the quarter than the next four companies combined and boosted its dividend almost 8% during the year. Revenues for the quarter were $42.1 billion vs. $37.5 billion a year earlier.