Google’s proposed new class of common stock

the C class announcement

Yesterday, in conjunction with its release of 1Q12 earnings, GOOG published a letter to shareholders on its website.  In it, Larry Page and Sergei Brin outline their plans to create a new class of stock–C shares.

On shareholders’ approval, the new C shares will be distributed as a stock dividend, on a one-for-one basis, to all holders of A and B shares.  C shares will be publicly traded on NASDAQ, using a different ticker symbol from the “GOOG” the A shares use.  As will continue to trade, though.

no voting power

The sole difference among the share classes will be in voting power.  Each A share has one vote; each B share, held by corporate insiders, has 10.   C shares will have no votes.

Since holders of B shares–principally Mssrs. Page, Brin and Eric Schmidt–wield over 70% of Google’s voting power, shareholder approval is a mere formality.

Google intends to file full details of the issue with the SEC next week.

why do this?

…to keep voting control of Google in the hands of the current B shareholders.

How could control be lost?

…through a combination of sales by B holders, issuance of new A shares through stock options or acquisitions for stock.

current shares outstanding

According to the company’s 2011 10-K filing, 67.2 million class B shares, representing 672 million votes, were outstanding on December 31st.  258 million As, representing another 258 million votes, were also out.  Employee stock options on just under 10 million new A shares had been granted and remained to be exercised.  (Notably, I think, the stock option count is growing very slowly.  Google only granted options on 718,000 new shares last year.)

Therefore, assuming all stock options grants are exercised, A shares represent 28.5% of the total vote.  Bs represent 71.5%.

implications of the Cs

control structure frozen

The most obvious is that the new class will provide a way for the company to issue potentially large amounts of new shares without altering the current control structure of the company.  Google has already said future employee stock option grants will be for Cs.  Bs continue to rule.

price of the Cs vs. Bs

It’s not clear that the Cs will trade at the same price as the Bs.  Arguably, voting power should be worth something.  But in this case, as the company is currently constituted, the Bs’ votes basically have no value.  So you’d think the two prices should at least be pretty close.

stock options

Stock options don’t seem to me to be a big deal–or any deal at all.  Here’s what I mean:

If we assume all outstanding stock options are exercised, the company currently has a total of 940 million votes.  Bs have 672 million, with 268 million more for the As.

For the moment, let’s ignore the possibility that insiders sell a significant number of Bs to get walking-around money.  Yes, company rules require that Bs be converted into As before being sold, so no outsiders can end up with the super-vote shares.  Bs, therefore, can–and in the past have–disappeared.  And, yes, Mssrs. Page and Brin are halfway through a modest (for them) sell program that goes into 2015.  But put these thoughts to the side.

As things stand now, A shares can only achieve a voting majority if over 672 million are outstanding.  That’s an extra 404 million shares.  At the 2011 stock option issuance rate, the As take over in the year 2575, or 563 years from now.  At the 2010 issuance rate of 1.7 million, the As grab the reins in a mere 238 years, in 2250.

Suppose B holders sell 10% of their stock–because they need a loose $4.4 billion.  That would imply that the Bs outstanding shrink to roughly 6 million and As expand to 275 million.  In this case, the As still need 325 million more shares to take over.  That would happen, at the earliest, toward the end of the next century.

Even for long-term thinkers like Google, dealing with stock options worries can’t be a pressing issue.

stock-based acquisitions

This is the only reason I can see for the C share move.

True, Google has $44 billion+ in cash; operations generated $14 billion+ last year.  But a seller may well prefer stock to cash.  And, of course, a potential acquisition could be very large.  It could also be very large and very sick, needing a big infusion of cash after the purchase.

Yes, the founders’ letter says  “we don’t have an unusually big acquisition planned, in case you were wondering.”  I’m sure that’s true.  But I’d emphasize the word “planned.”  It seems to me that Google may well have decided it needs to make an acquisition of a certain type over the next couple of years and have developed a list of possible candidates. The next step is figuring out how to pay for it–which is what I think Google is doing now.

Who know what such an acquisition might be?  I wouldn’t care to bet on anything.  But I do have a guess, however   …somebody like Sony.  But that company has been such a train wreck for such a long time that I don’t see any percentage in speculating that Google would rescue them.  There are also severe legal obstacles that Tokyo has erected to deter foreign takeovers of its domestic firms.  On the other hand, Sony is a post-WWII upstart, not part of the establishment.  And the company does have TV technology, cellphones, tablets/PCs and the Playstation in tens of millions of homes around the world.

 

 

 

 

Do stock splits mean anything?

The short answer:  in the US, no; elsewhere, probably.

What a stock split is

In a stock split, a company issues new shares to existing shareholders, in proportion to their pre-split holdings.  In a two-for-one split, for example, each holder of one share receives one new share, so that he then holds two.  His ownership interest in the company is unchanged, however.  The value of his share total remains unchanged, as well.  In the case we are talking about, on the day the stock begins trading ex the split, it typically opens at roughly half the price of the pre-split stock.  (A stock dividend is basically the same as a split, although the terminology and the bookkeeping may be a little different.) Continue reading

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