Imagine selling slices of a large pizza. You can cut it into four even slices and charge $2 a slice. Or, you can cut it into eight even slices and charge $1 per slice. Either way, the total value of the pizza will still be $8.
That’s what happens when a stock splits. Let’s say a stock’s market price is $100. With a 2-for-1 split, each current owner receives one additional share for each share he owns. Now, each share is worth $50. If you had one share to start, you now have two, but the total value of the investment remains $100.
A stock split differs from when a company decides to issue new shares, wherein new shares flooding the market can dilute the value of existing shares. With a stock split, the value of existing shares does not decrease. The total market value of a shareholder’s holdings will remain the same.
There are different forms of stock splits, such as the 2-for-1, 3-for-1, or 3-for-2 stock split. They all work the same way: You get two shares for each one you hold, or three shares for each one you hold, or three shares for every two shares you own.
Another, less common form is called the reverse stock split. This is when a company decides to reduce the number of outstanding shares, which in turn will increase the stock price of shares held by stockholders. This strategy is generally used to boost the price of a stock that has lost value over time.
It is important to recognize that the stock split is a simple strategy designed to affect the stock price. It in no way changes the company’s market capitalization (i.e., the total value of all outstanding shares) or other fundamental metrics. In order to issue a stock split, both company management and the board of directors must approve. Furthermore, the company must publicly announce its intention to conduct a stock split within days or weeks of implementation.
The timing of the announcement is important because some investors try to take advantage of a stock split, believing that the value of the stock will increase as a result. This has more to do with market sentiment than any change in company fundamentals.
For example, in many cases, after a company performed a stock split, its stock value returned to its pre-split price within a year. This is not necessarily because the company has improved fundamentals, but rather because the investor market simply believes that stock is worth that price — it’s a form of confirmation bias. However, in recent years it is not as common for split stocks to climb back to their original price as it was in the past.
Why Conduct a Stock Split?
Again, the reason for a stock split is largely driven by market sentiment. For example, some investors may not have a lot of discretionary income to invest, so they look for a lower-priced stock. While they might not consider a stock valued at $100 per share, they may be interested in the company at $50 a share. In fact, following a recent stock split, investors may see it as getting a bargain price for that stock. As such, they might buy two shares. Now they’ve spent $100 on two shares whereas they were reluctant to buy one share for $100. The value is the same, but psychologically, that stock now seems like a great buy. This is referred to as unit bias. Psychologically, most people perceive lower per share prices to mean that a stock is “cheaper” and therefore may have more room to make gains.
In addition, now they can further diversify their portfolio with different stocks, whereas before those high-priced shares may have dominated their portfolios, exposing them to greater market risk.
A stock split also allows current shareholders to increase their holdings at half price. While the value hasn’t changed when they make the buy, if the stock increases in the future their portfolio will increase in value because they have more shares of that stock. For example, let’s say you have 10 shares of a stock priced at $10, for a total value of $100. The stock splits 2-for-1, so now you have 20 shares priced at $5, still valued at $100. In a few years, the stock price grows to $20 per share. Had the stock not split, your total value would grow to $200. But because you now own 20 shares, the total value of those shares would grow to $400.
The true value of a stock split comes from holding those shares until the price increases substantially.
Mutual Fund Split
Some mutual funds also engage in the split strategy, but instead of splitting an individual stock, the fund company issues additional shares of the fund at a reduced price. In all other ways, a mutual fund share split works like an individual stock split.
If you’d like to learn the history of a company’s stock splits, consider the following resources: