January 14, 2010(NYSE: BRK-A) (NYSE: BRK-B) is holding a special shareholders meeting to approve the planned 50:1 split of its B shares. The B share split was announced in November, on the same day that the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (NYSE: BNI) acquisition was announced. The key rationale given for the split was to enable small Burlington Northern shareholders to select the tax-free share exchange rather than cash, though interestingly, the proxy statement announcing the special shareholders meeting indicates that the split will move forward independent of the railroad deal's closure.
The rationale for the 50:1 split sounds shareholder-friendly -- that is, for small Burlington Northern shareholders. But what about current Berkshire Hathaway shareholders? Over the years, Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett has written about share splits, and not in a favorable way. In his 1983 letter to shareholders, Buffett wrote, "Were we to split the stock or take other actions focusing on stock price rather than business value, we would attract an entering class of buyers inferior to the exiting class of sellers." Nearly a decade later in his 1992 letter, Buffett's view on share splits remained consistent, "... there is no way that our shareholder group would be upgraded by the new shareholders enticed by a split. Instead we believe that modest degradation would occur."
While stock splits are not uncommon -- S&P 500 components AmerisourceBergen (NYSE: ABC), Brown-Forman (NYSE: BF-B), Fluor (NYSE: FLR), and Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP) have all done splits in the last two years -- it is difficult not to pay special attention to the Berkshire split. First, the split will dramatically change the share price; this is no garden variety 2:1 split. At 50:1, the split will drop Berkshire B share prices from $3,300 per share to roughly $66 per share, making the stock accessible to small investors and traders alike, and making its addition to the S&P 500 index conceivable. Second, it is hard to ignore the past views that Buffett has expressed on stock splits.
Call me old-school, but I like the four-figure share price. What do other Fools think? Will the 50:1 Berkshire Hathaway split morph the shareholder base into a fast-trigger trading crowd that will result in higher turnover of Berkshire B shares? Or will Berkshire see little change in its B share owners? Stay tuned for more Foolish analysis following the split.
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