Apple (NAS: AAPL) had a lot on its plate ahead of last week's conference call to reveal its cash management strategy.
The world's most valuable tech company was considering reinitiating a quarterly dividend, buying back stock, and declaring a stock split.
Investors got two of the three last week.
Since the company is flush with nearly $100 billion in cash and marketable securities, it certainly makes sense for Apple to begin shelling out $2.65 a share every three months to its shareholders. Setting aside $10 billion for a huge share buyback in fiscal 2013 will also return money to investors by reducing the number of shares outstanding.
However, Apple passed on the one event that would have been the cheapest to implement yet potentially the most effective maneuver in moving Apple's stock even higher.
Where's the stock split, Cupertino?
Stock splits are simple in theory. A company with a hefty share price can make itself seem more accessible through a forward stock split.
Let's take Apple. There were 941.6 million fully diluted shares outstanding as of the iEverything giant's latest quarter. Let's say Apple is at $600. It can declare a 10-for-1 stock split, and every share is exchanged for 10 new shares at $60.
It's a zero-sum game, of course. There is no difference between 941.6 million shares at $600 and 9.416 billion shares at $60. However, it does give more investors the ability to buy the stock in a round lot of 100 shares. It's easier to find investors willing to spend $6,000 on 100 shares of Apple than $60,000 on 100 shares -- even if they're really getting the same sliver of the company.
A generation ago, stocks splits were common as growth stocks saw their stickers climb past $50. Apple did exactly that in executive 2-for-1 stock splits in 1987, 2000, and 2005.
However, today Apple proudly trades in the triple digits. If you can't buy 100 shares at $60,000, just buy 10 shares at $6,000.
Brokerage commissions are cheap enough these days that that's certainly a feasible trade, but why did Apple's splitting strategy change? What about individual investors using options as part of their investing strategies?
Blame it all on Google
Some companies never split. Warren Buffett doesn't apologize for the six-figure price tag for a single share of Berkshire Hathaway's (NYS: BRK.A) (NYS: BRK.B) Class A shares. He even initially resisted when investors sought out lower-priced B shares.
However, stocks trading for more than single and double digits were rare outside of Buffett's diversified conglomerate.
Google (NAS: GOOG) changed that. When the world's leading search engine went public eight years ago, it was hoping to price its new offering as high as $135 a share. It had to settle for $85 in a nervous market, but it's never really looked back. The stock now fetches more than $650, and there are no indications that it plans on introducing its first stock split anytime soon.
There are now dozens of popular companies trading in the triple digits.
One of them -- priceline.com (NAS: PCLN) -- was once trading at a price so low that it declared a 1-for-6 reverse stock split in 2003. In other words, the popular travel portal exchanged every six shares of its penny stock-priced shares at the time for a single share at six times the previous price.
These days Priceline is trading at a price point that's even higher than Apple's or Google's. Wouldn't a 6-for-1 split be poetic?
Let go my ego
Many of these companies are sticking to these lofty sums as badges. Berkshire Hathaway, Apple, Google, and Priceline are some of the greatest large-cap performers. Why not wear a meaty share price with pride?
Several years ago, investors would bid up companies declaring stock splits. The math is the same, but the message being sent to shareholders was that the future prospects were so promising that the company was willing to whittle down its share price to a point where it could start to build it back up again.
Plenty of companies are still declaring stock splits, but not the big names.
A final consideration would have to be options trading. Investors often consider strategies involving calls and puts to be highly speculative, but under the right circumstances they actually reduce risk.
Someone can buy 100 shares of Apple, and then sell a single covered call contract at a slightly higher price point than where Apple is now. The investor pockets the premium paid by the call buyer, and sells the 100 shares of Apple -- at the higher strike price -- only if Apple exceeds that price. It's a popular strategy that trades some of a stock's upside for incremental income, but investors need to spend at least $60,000 to buy a round lot of Apple.
How seriously did Apple consider the stock split? Does this mean that it will consider the seemingly abandoned practice if the stock continues to inch higher?
Only Apple knows. Then again, with so many bellwethers trading at meaty price points, it's probably just a matter of one of them blinking.
The moment that Apple or Google finally goes through with a stock split, don't be surprised if the other big names follow.
Longtime Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz does not own shares in any of the stocks in this article. The Motley Fool owns shares of Google, Berkshire Hathaway, and Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Apple, Google, priceline.com, and Berkshire Hathaway. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a bull call spread position in Apple.
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