The Warren Buffett Effect on Stocks

The number of stocks undergoing splits has drastically fallen, making SPX stocks more expensive than usual

Senior Market Strategist
May 5, 2017 at 2:19 PM
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At present, a whopping 30% of S&P 500 Index (SPX) components, or 150 of the 500 stocks, are priced over $100 a share -- an all-time record. The previous record was in March 2000, at the peak of the tech rally, with just 9.5% of SPX stocks priced in triple-digit territory. During the real estate boom, in October 2007, the percentage peaked at 9.2%. So, what's behind this phenomenon? Have stocks become "Veblen goods," or is this the Warren Buffett Effect? 

SPX stocks above 100 dollars

Class-A shares of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRK.A) have been the most expensive on record for quite some time. They now fetch nearly $250,000 per share. No need to split your stock, so says Warren, whose IBM stake is moving markets today. And Amazon stock and Google parent Alphabet Inc (NASDAQ:GOOGL) fetch more than $900 apiece. A few other high-flying equities include Priceline Group Inc (NASDAQ:PCLN), trading north of $1,900, and Tesla Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA), which is above $300. Why split, what's the point?

Household ownership of equities has been declining for years, so corporate insiders see no need to "feed the masses" with lower-priced shares via stock splits. In the mid-to-late 1980s, the number of S&P 500 companies issuing stock splits was above 100, per Bloomberg Businessweek; it's been fewer than 20 since the financial crisis, though Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) recently underwent a 7-for-1 stock split.  Still, companies aren't that interested in splitting their shares, as they were previously. Big-time money flows from institutions, who have less of a need or care for low-priced equities.They just want to move capital, not buy fractional shares like retail clients.

Wikipedia defines "Veblen goods" as "types of luxury goods, such as expensive wines, jewelry, fashion-designer handbags, and luxury cars, which are in demand because of the high prices asked for them. The high price makes the goods desirable as status symbols ... a decrease of the price of Veblen goods would decrease demand for the products."

So, from a broader economic perspective, equities have become "status symbols," or Veblen goods, as I'm pretty sure that a family living "paycheck to paycheck" isn't so interested in buying $900/share Amazon stock -- that is two weeks' of pay for some. And per a recent Bankrate study, 60% of Americans don't have $500 in savings.

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