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Could Stock Splits Entice New Equity Investors, Finally?

Jon C. Ogg

With stocks within a few percentage points of all-time highs and with the stocks in a confirmed bull market, we wanted to consider the effect of stock splits in a time when market participation is low. It is astonishing that there has been a significant lack of new wealth created from the bull market. We recently featured 12 great bull market stocks that seriously need to consider a stock split. The first admission that needs to be made is that stock splits are perhaps not much different than a gimmick. The flip side of that is that splits historically have been viewed positively and with excitement by investors.

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The saying is that bull markets climb a wall of worry. What we have seen for years is not a wall of worry, but worse. We have seen investors scared to participate, not believing the validity of gains, mistrusting Wall Street and quite simply vowing off stocks as an asset class. We may have even lost a full generation of equity investors.

Again, a split is effectively a gimmick. That does not mean that companies cannot create excitement and buzz behind splits. The Rightline report evaluates stocks splits and looks for companies that it thinks will announce splits. In fact, it even offers a free "life cycle of stock splits" showing you when splits are good and even the drop in the aftermath after a split when short sellers may attack a stock.

How many young investors can buy stocks in some of the great companies they love now? If you are a twenty-something, are you likely to spend $499 for a new iPad or iPhone, or are you likely to buy one share of Apple Inc. (AAPL) stock? Some of the great growth companies out there now have shares that are priced too high for their top customer demographics to be able to buy shares. Apple has had a hard time exciting anyone about anything of late. Tim Cook may be a great CEO under any circumstances, but the market just does not think of him as well as Steve Jobs. Would a split excite new investors?

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If you are a subscriber of Netflix Inc. (NFLX) and have limited funds, are you more likely to pay $100 per year to subscribe, or think about spending $250 or so to buy one share of Netflix? Does AutoZone Inc. (AZO) seem like it should be a $426 stock? Maybe you wouldn't even think about this way, but if you walked into AutoZone and decided that you think it has a great future ahead. then think about this: Will a $426 stock price turn you off? If you walked into a Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. (CMG) store and thought perhaps about wanting to own a piece of its future, would you as a first-time investor think that a $400 stock price sounds right when you eat there for under $10 each time?

Google Inc. (GOOG) is perhaps already in the midst of trying a share split, but that is not really the same sort of "gimmick" split for investors. This is actually to give Larry and Sergey more control for the next half century via a class split. Everyone uses Google, but if you have never invested you likely will shy away from an $886 share price.

Then there is Priceline.com Inc. (PCLN). This travel stock is back at the dot-com bubble highs of more than a decade ago, and the company may refrain from wanting to split because its last split was actually a reverse stock split because its shares cratered to such low prices. How many young new investors think they are going to matter buying one or two shares at $958 per share?

Again, stock splits do not really change fundamentals. The reason we call them a gimmick is because the actual earnings and sales do not change. The only changes are the price of the shares, the number of shares and the metrics per share.

Does it help you to know that ultimately the great Warren Buffett capitulated at least somewhat in a stock split. To help facilitate investors and to help in a transaction tied to the BNSF acquisition, there are B shares for Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (BRK-B). The A shares trade around $175,000 per share, but the B shares trade around $116. Buffett has no trouble managing his shares in a dual class, and this lower price at least offers others the chance to buy in even if the share price is still nominally high.

Many big companies split their stocks because they believe that it helps attract new buyers, or at least makes the shares more affordable. The Coca-Cola Co. (KO), 3D Systems Corp. (DDD), DaVita HealthCare Partners Inc. (DVA), Whole Foods Market Inc. (WFM), Cerner Inc. (CERN), Six Flags Entertainment Corp. (SIX), Salesforce.com Inc. (CRM) and Colgate-Palmolive Co. (CL) are big companies that have all seen stock splits in recent months.

Again, a stock split is a gimmick, but this dull bull market needs any excitement and new participation that it can get. Stocks theoretically should not be governed by their share price as much as they are by their market capitalizations. Unfortunately, tell that to a sub-$1 stock that is rather large but still facing delisting risks at the NYSE or Nasdaq because of the $1.00 rule.

Another consideration about excitement is that anything under 100 shares is considered an odd-lot in trading. In fact, odd-lot investors traditionally have been viewed as the suckers or weak hands. Can Priceline, Apple, Google, Chipotle and others with such high prices lead the stock market higher with a bunch of new odd-lot investors getting into the stocks? Think about it.

Investing for retirement is going to make some stock ownership mandatory, and this is merely an echo of the same statement that has been made for more than a year now. Imagine how long-term bond fund investors enjoyed seeing the value of their investment funds drop 7% or 8% from the end of April to the start of July. Imagine how they will feel if that sort of bleeding occurs for another year or longer.

Feel free to send any bull market ideas on corporate governance to us. The recent pullback in stocks has not been enough to entice new buyers yet, and we have been pretty adamant about how the last rally has been without creating a new round of wealth among younger risk-takers.

Lastly, what if some of the great stocks never announced stock splits? Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), Cisco Systems Inc. (CSCO) and Dell Inc. (DELL) have all become very unexciting through time. The law of big numbers caught up, in market cap and total market opportunity rather than in share price. Consider how unexciting these would be to new investors if their shares had never had stock splits.

Cisco Systems Inc. (CSCO) has the equivalent of 28,800 shares today for 100 shares invested before the first split in 1990. With an unexciting stock at $26 or so, how excited would investors be if they had to pay $7,500 for one share today? Our guess: not very excited.

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Dell Inc. (DELL) has split seven times, with all but one split (three-for-to) as a two-for-one split. A share before 1992 is the equivalent of 96 shares today. Dell is unexciting to the point that a buyout cannot even be greeted well, so imagine of a $13.65 price was really about $1,300 per share.

Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) also has the equivalent of 28,800 shares for 100 shares bought in the 1980s. Shares are almost $33 now and almost nobody is excited about Microsoft outside of the income and value investing crowd. How excited would they be if the stock price was $9,500 for one share today?

We were invited to discuss this on CNBC interview on Monday.

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