Control freaks: Google's stock split

It's good for the founders, but is it in the company's interests?

Google have announced that they will be splitting their stock. This is normally a move which – although free-market purists disagree – is intended to slightly boost the overall value of a company. The idea is that small investors may be put off by the fact that it costs well over $600 to own a single share in Google, but would buy in to a company that costs $300. It is a reasonable theory. After all, one share in pre-split Google would be a significant proportion of a hobbyist investor's portfolio; if they jump on board in significant numbers, it could provide a mild capital boost.

Except that's not really why Google split their stock. They did it because their Troika – Larry Page, Sergei Brin and Eric Schmidt – never really wanted to give up control in the first place. The split will create an entirely new class of non-voting stocks, which will mean those three will continue to own 58 per cent of the votes for the foreseeable future. Indeed, twice in the founders' letter announcing the change, Page and Brin write of the "very long term"; they have no intention to give up control any time soon.

On the other hand, they have to specify the very long term, because the scale of their control of the company is such that it is only in a long timeframe that it is coceivable that they could lose it. Even if Google doubled the number of shares owned by people other than those three, they would still hold control in the company (although Larry and Sergei would no longer hold an absolute majority on their own, but would need Eric's input).

Felix Salmon thinks he knows why they made this change:

This move, then, is basically a way for Google to try to retreat back into its pre-IPO shell as much as possible. It never really wanted to go public in the first place — it was forced into that by the 500-shareholder rule...

(The SEC has a rule which forces companies with more than 500 shareholders to register with them, revealing most of their internal accounts. Faced with this, many companies decide to go public, which has much the same restrictions but also promises a massive payout)

...but at this point, Google is far too entrenched in the corporate landscape to be able to turn back the clock. It’s too big, and too important, and has been public for too long. That’s the thing about going public: it might suck, but once you’ve done it, you’ve done it. And at that point, if you try to pull a stunt like this, you risk looking all too much like Rupert Murdoch.

Salmon also points out that moves like this were illegal in the US for much of the last century. From the 1920s until 1986, companies had to have equal voting rights. Indeed, it was seen as a pretty fundamental rule of the market. Not that we should hold Google to the standards of 1985. That would be tricky for a number of reasons.

Google are splitting their stocks to concentrate control. Don't be evil? Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.