Google completed its stock split today, roughly halving the value of individual shares while doubling the total number of shares available. This is a common practice for companies whose shares have reached and sustained an expensive all-time high. Google's stock price had topped $1,000 in recent months — by splitting its stock Google makes it cheaper and more attractive to small retail investors. It also gives itself more shares, which are an essential tool for hiring top talent and completing big mergers and acquisitions.
The unusual thing about today's split was that it didn't simply double the number of existing shares; it also splits them into multiple types. It created a new kind of shares, Class C stock, which will trade under a different ticker symbol and won't have any of the voting rights associated with the existing Class A stock that has long been available on the public markets.
Critics would call it another example of the company flouting its "don't be evil" motto
The move is intended to allow the current executives to retain firm control over the company. Critics say that Google's approach undermines the rights of shareholders, just another example of the company flouting its "don't be evil" motto. If the new Class C shares were the only ones available to the public, then this argument would hold water. But it's not the whole story.
Firstly, Google has always had a multitiered system of shares. Before today there were the Class A shares available to the public along with the Class B shares, which had 10 times the voting rights and are largely controlled by top executives like Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Eric Schmidt, effectively giving them control of over 61 percent of the votes.
Second, investors can still continue to purchase Class A shares if they want to have a say during Google's shareholder votes. The Class A and C shares will trade under different tickers, GOOGL and GOOG. In theory they are supposed to have the same price. But since the C shares have no voting rights, they may be cheaper. If there is a big spread, Google has agreed to pay up to $7.5 billion to investors to help cover the difference.
A move to protect against activist investors
So investors will have a choice: buy the likely more expensive Class A shares with voting rights, or stick with the Class C shares, which don't give a vote, but still present investors with a chance to profit from Google's success in the future. For the majority of investors voting is a non-issue, since they will never have a large enough stake to make any meaningful impact.
And that's really the rub. This class of non-voting shares is intended to keep big players like activist investor Carl Icahn from coming in and buying up a big stake in Google now that the shares are cheaper, then trying to make demands about how the company should be run. It's got nothing to do with punishing the little guy.
Time will tell how the two classes of shares perform against one another. For small investors, the Class C shares could end up being a great bargain: you can essentially buy a stake in Google's future performance at a discount, giving up voting rights that are largely symbolic. And if the gap in price grows too large between your shares and the Class A stock, Google has promised it will literally pay to make up the difference.