Warren Buffett better get used to crowd control — at least when it comes to his investors.
His company, Berkshire Hathaway, just opened itself up to the masses after a 50-to-1 split of its Class B shares took the stock price from around $3,500 to $69 each. That means you can buy a share of one of the world's most successful companies for the same price of Salesforce.com or Panera Bread Co.
At a price like that, Berkshire shares will attract more buyers — but not necessarily the kind Buffett likes. Bigger and more aggressive investors could show up on his doorstep, many of whom don't share his long-term views about investing.
"It could be like trying to manage the New York Yankees by what the guys in the bleacher seats are saying," says Jeff Matthews, author of "Pilgrimage to Warren Buffett's Omaha" and founder of the hedge fund Ram Partners LP.
Don't be fooled. Buffett isn't doing this because he wants to give more people a chance at owning Berkshire stock. The stock split is being done as part of Berkshire's $26.3 billion acquisition of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. The new lower-priced shares enable Berkshire to offer shareholders in the nation's second-largest railroad Berkshire stock instead of cash.
Buffett acknowledges he doesn't like having to issue stock. Neither does his right-hand man, vice chairman Charlie Munger.
"Charlie and I like using stock about as much as preparing for a colonoscopy. It's not our favorite activity," Buffett said Wednesday at a special shareholders meeting to approve the stock split. He did not return a message requesting additional comment.
Berkshire is known to pounce when bear markets hit. Over the past four decades, the company has built a stable of investments in big-name companies including Coca-Cola Co. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc.. The company has more than 60 subsidiaries, including clothing, furniture, jewelry and corporate jet businesses.
Buffett has always wanted shareholders who didn't look over his shoulder or question his strategy on investments. He got what he wanted by keeping the shares expensive enough to be out of reach for most investors.
Berkshire's Class A shares are priced at over $104,000, and hold majority voting power at the company. In 1996, Berkshire introduced the lower-cost Class B shares, which are now being split. Buffett holds a third of the Class A stock and 10 percent of the Class B shares, according to securities filings.
Buffett has been trying to downplay concerns that cheaper Berkshire shares could alter the company's unique place in corporate America.
"We have a culture that's not going to change," Buffett said at Wednesday's meeting. He said that more shareholders were fine so "long as they own for the same reasons we own the stock."
But how could things not change?
Buffett knows that better than anyone. He has never liked the idea of stock splits at Berkshire because of the risks of attracting "buyers inferior to the existing class of sellers," as he explained in his annual letter to shareholders 27 years ago.
He went on to say that short-term investors could "accentuate erratic price swings unrelated to underlying business developments." He echoed the same views in his 1992 shareholder letter.
The concerns Buffett had back then are still relevant today — maybe even more so.
Now there's high-frequency trading, in which computers dictate when shares are bought and sold at light speed. Those kind of investors — often hedge funds — move in and out of stocks fast, with little regard for long-term value. They also tend to avoid pricier stocks.
The lower price for Class B shares will increase Berkshire's liquidity, meaning it will be easier to trade and trades will happen more frequently.
Berkshire's Class B stock had an average daily trading volume of about 37,000 shares before the stock split. By comparison, around 55 million shares of Microsoft Corp. and 75 million shares of General Electric Co. trade each day.
"This (stock split) puts into the realm of possibility that anyone can own Berkshire stock," says Larry Tabb, who runs a trading advisory firm.
More movement in the stock could put Berkshire in the Standard & Poor's 500. The index's eligibility requirements call for "adequate liquidity and reasonable price." Berkshire is currently the largest publicly traded U.S. company not in the S&P 500, a widely used benchmark for the stock market and the broadest measure of large, publicly held U.S. companies.
An inclusion in the S&P 500 could lift the stock for the short term as investment funds that track the index are forced to buy the stock.
More than 40 years into its history, Berkshire has been largely walled off from much of the investing public. Let's see what happens when those worlds collide.
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