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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Theresa May shows again that Brexit means hard Brexit

The Prime Minister's promise of "an end to free movement" is incompatible with single market membership. 

Theresa May, it is commonly said, has told us nothing about Brexit. At today's PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn ran with this line, demanding that May offer "some clarity". In response, as she has before, May stated what has become her defining aim: "an end to free movement". This vow makes a "hard Brexit" (or "chaotic Brexit" as Corbyn called it) all but inevitable. The EU regards the "four freedoms" (goods, capital, services and people) as indivisible and will not grant the UK an exemption. The risk of empowering eurosceptics elsewhere is too great. Only at the cost of leaving the single market will the UK regain control of immigration.

May sought to open up a dividing line by declaring that "the Labour Party wants to continue with free movement" (it has refused to rule out its continuation). "I want to deliver on the will of the British people, he is trying to frustrate the British people," she said. The problem is determining what the people's will is. Though polls show voters want control of free movement, they also show they want to maintain single market membership. It is not only Boris Johnson who is pro-having cake and pro-eating it. 

Corbyn later revealed that he had been "consulting the great philosophers" as to the meaning of Brexit (a possible explanation for the non-mention of Heathrow, Zac Goldsmith's resignation and May's Goldman Sachs speech). "All I can come up with is Baldrick, who says our cunning plan is to have no plan," he quipped. Without missing a beat, May replied: "I'm interested that [he] chose Baldrick, of course the actor playing Baldrick was a member of the Labour Party, as I recall." (Tony Robinson, a Corbyn critic ("crap leader"), later tweeted that he still is one). "We're going to deliver the best possible deal in goods and services and we're going to deliver an end to free movement," May continued. The problem for her is that the latter aim means that the "best possible deal" may be a long way from the best. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.