No Stock Split Seen in Google's Immediate Future

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Google Inc. (GOOG), a company built on complex algorithms that power its online search engine, doesn't appear to be in any rush to tackle one of Wall Street's most basic equations — the stock split.

This widely used market maneuver is designed to make a stock more affordable to the masses, something that would seemingly appeal to an egalitarian-minded company like Google, whose shares crossed the $200 threshold for the first time earlier this week.

Yet all signs so far point to Google adopting an anti-split stance.

"This is a management that sees no upside to a stock split (search)," said Barry Randall, portfolio manager for U.S. Bancorp's First American Technology Fund, which owns 4,682 Google shares. "I just don't think it's very high on the company's list of priorities."

Mark Pincus, an early investor in Google, agrees. "If I had to wager, I would bet they won't ever split it," said Pincus, who runs a privately held Internet company, Tribe Networks.

Mountain View-based Google hasn't publicly addressed the stock-split issue since its initial public offering in August. Company spokesman Steve Langdon declined comment earlier this week.

Stock splits have become so commonplace in corporate America that investors almost reflexively expect them whenever a company's share price approaches $100. Stock splits have been completed or announced by 2,682 companies so far this year, according to Thomson First Call.

But Google co-founders and controlling shareholders Larry Page and Sergey Brin already have made it clear that they intend to defy stock market conventions — an objective that would be furthered by eschewing stock splits.

Page and Brin outlined their unorthodox philosophy in a pre-IPO manifesto that they called an "owner's manual" for shareholders. The letter underscored the co-founders' deep admiration of fellow billionaire, Warren Buffett (search).

The Buffett-run Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (search) has never split its stock, an anomaly that contributed to the company's eye-popping share price of $83,400 during Friday's trading.

Buffett frowns on stock splits because he believes it paves the way for more short-term speculators to buy and sell shares — a phenomenon that Google also wants to discourage.

"We would request our shareholders take the long-term view," Page and Brin wrote in their IPO letter. "... A management team distracted by a series of short-term targets is as pointless as a dieter stepping on a scale every half hour."

Most corporate boards have embraced splits because they generally provide at least a temporary boost in the stock by creating the perception of a cheaper price.

A stock split wouldn't affect Google's current market value of about $47 billion, but it would cut the stock's share price — an outcome that theoretically opens the investment door to more Main Street investors with limited budgets.

A stock split lowers the nominal share price by increasing the number of shares outstanding, usually in multiples ranging from two to four times.

For instance, Google currently had roughly 275 million shares outstanding trading at $170.29 Friday. If Google executed a 4-for-1 stock, the company would have 1.1 billion shares outstanding priced at $42.57.

Some analysts think Google's stock is bound to drop without a split, partially because nearly 90 million shares owed by company insiders will become eligible to be traded for the first time between mid-November and mid-January.

The looming expirations of these so-called "lock-up" periods is one of the reasons UBS analyst Benjamin Schachter set a $160 price target for Google's shares in a report issued Thursday. Schachter's bearish outlook caused Google's shares to plunge $14.41, or nearly 8 percent, during Friday's trading.

Because stock splits don't change a company's market value or profit prospects, many analysts and investors belittle the exercise as little more than a promotional gimmick. "I think it would be very cool if Google didn't do it because stock splits are sort of an irrational thing to do," Pincus said.

Splits nevertheless are a staple, particularly in the high-tech industry, where per-share prices frequently soar.

Software giant Microsoft Corp. has split its stock nine times since its 1986 IPO. If not for those splits, Microsoft's shares would be valued at about $8,386.56 per share instead of Friday's trading price of $29.12.

Yahoo Inc. (YHOO (search)), perhaps Google's biggest rival, has split its stock four times, including three times within its first four years of going public. If not for the splits, Yahoo's shares would be valued at $866.16 instead of their Friday trading price of $36.09.

Google's resistance to stock splits became evident during its IPO. The company sought as much as $135 per share before settling for $85 after many investors expressed reluctance to pay a price in the triple digits. Some analysts thought Google could have softened the backlash by splitting its stock before the IPO.

Matthew Crowder, who owns 80 Google shares that he bought in the company's IPO, says he won't mind if the company doesn't split the stock. "It's kind of like 'six of one, and half a dozen of another,'" said Crowder, an Albuquerque resident.

Crowder also runs an online discussion forum devoted to Google's stock and he believes many investors are in for a disappointment, based on the remarks that have been posted in recent weeks. "I think a lot of people are hoping for a psychological boost from a split."

That's precisely the kind of thinking Google wants to discourage, said investment portfolio manager Randall, who attended a pre-IPO presentation that provided insights into the philosophy of Brin and Page.

"These guys are really committed to the idea of buying and holding a stock," Randall said. "The last thing they want to do is make their stock even more volatile than it already is."