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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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

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