With shares of Google ( GOOG) setting yet another all-time high and poised to break through the $500-a-share frontier, is it finally time for the search giant to split its stock? While there seems to be speculation about a split every time the company surpasses another $100 in its stock price -- remember the sticker-shock talk when it crossed the $200 mark almost two years ago? -- the logic now is more compelling than ever. It might appear that the difference between holding one share that costs $500 or 10 shares that cost $50 each is trivial. But for individual investors, whom Google explicitly sought out in its unusual 2004 auction IPO because of the everyperson's tendency to look at the long term, it's not. On the psychological side, Google's increasingly stratospheric stock price makes it less approachable to individual investors. This effect will only become stronger, as a growing number of analysts predict that the stock will hit $600. But there are also practical issues. Suppose someone decides to invest $1,200 in Google. At current prices, that gets you two shares. The remainder of the money will have to find a new home, and this -- when added up -- can soften demand. All of this means that Google's stock could be trading for more if the company initiated a split -- and perhaps a good deal more, if history is any guide. Research shows that the effect of a stock split is a gain in value of 9% over a year, says David Ikenberry, a professor of finance and chairman of the department of finance at the University of Illinois College of Business.
"That's a pretty powerful number," he says. "If we could outperform the market by 9% a year, we could end up in the same retirement home as Warren Buffett." Recent aspects of the company's strategy also could make a split -- and a quick boost in share price -- more compelling. Google made its first large, all-stock acquisition in October this year, handing over shares worth $1.65 billion for the online video start-up YouTube. As the company seeks to expand beyond its core online advertising market, a higher stock price would mean that the price of new stock-based acquisitions would be cheaper. While Google says it doesn't care about where its stock is on a quarterly basis, its share price equates to real money when making acquisitions. But with its supposed concern for the little guy, Google's resistance to share splits has been especially puzzling. Google even took the unusual step of going around big Wall Street investment banks and selling its stock on an even footing to individual investors during its high-profile IPO. And other tech companies without any particular admiration for individual investors, such as Microsoft ( MSFT), Yahoo! ( YHOO) and eBay ( EBAY) -- which split its stock six months after its IPO -- have been quick to split their stocks. But as it transforms from a start-up on a mission to a corporate behemoth, Google may be focusing less on the little guy and more on its own interests.
However, while there may be benefits to increased liquidity for Google -- the stock is currently about one-sixteenth as liquid as Microsoft's -- there also may be some risks, according to Caris analyst Tim Boyd. As the company's stock price soars, institutional investors eager to point out their shrewdness to customers are piling into the stock, and a lower number of shares on the market could actually help boost the share price. Now, 57% of Google's stock is held by institutional investors, up from 38% at the beginning of the year. A lot of that institutional growth has to do with the company's original decision to choose Main Street over Wall Street during its IPO. But with the tide turning the other way, Google is now on par with Microsoft and eBay, whose stocks are owned 55% and 63% by institutions, respectively. As its mix of individual and institutional investors comes into line with those of other tech companies, Google will once again return to exploring what it can do to woo the individual investor. And as it share price keeps reaching new highs, a split may be just the answer.