Friday, August 12, 2011

The Fallacy of Citibank's Reverse Stock Split

Stock splits may be one of the more misunderstood subjects when it comes to the stock market. Announcement of a stock split is usually hailed as good news, supposedly because it lowers the price of the stock, making it more "affordable" to future potential investors. However, most informed observers understand that this is silly, particularly when viewing the ownership of a corporation as a pie, and the shares of stock as slices of the pie. No matter if the pie is divided into ten million pieces, or after a two-for-one split, twenty million pieces, the value of the pie is the same, and the relative value of shares is unaffected by the split (or lack of split). The fact that Berkshire Hathaway doesn't split and trades for $100,000 a share belies the argument that it's bad for a stock's share price to get too high.

There is, however, one situation where a stock split does affect the total valuation of a company, and the surprising thing it's the corporation itself that seems to be oblivious to this fact. This is the case of the reverse split, where multiple shares of stock are surrendered for a single share. In the stock market there is a stigma for companies whose shares are priced too low. As such, there may be a temptation for a company to try to eliminate this stigma via a reverse split. However, in many cases the reverse split is detrimental to the shareholder of the company. The reason is that while the value of a share of stock is generally based on the allocable fractional value of the entire corporation, there is also some residual value to a share of stock as a trading vehicle. This is demonstrated by the shares of ghost companies, companies that have gone through bankruptcy, with liabilities well in excess of assets and shareholder equity clearly being wiped out. Yet shares of these companies can trade at 20, 50, or even 75 cents per share. Obviously, there is no corporate value to these shares, merely the value as a trading vehicle. In most cases this trading value is negligible compared to the corporate value, but in the case of a lower priced share of stock it could have some significance.

It is with this background that I laughed when Citibank announced a 1-for-10 reverse split to enhance its share price. At $4.50 per share, the stock price for this corporate giant was embarrassingly low, and cutting the outstanding shares by 90 percent would price the stock at a more prestigious $45. However, I knew that part of the $4.50 was the trading value, which would be lost after the reverse split. Sure enough, Citibank dropped over $1.50 per share on its first post-reverse split day of trading. And today? Citibank is trading at $30, briefly trading around $28 earlier this week. Obviously the stock would have fallen in any event. But the fact is that Citibank stock has never exceeded its opening post-reverse split price, and while they may now have the prestige of being a $30 stock, they also cost their shareholders quite a bit of money.

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