Technology has developed in leaps and bounds over the decades, and Dow component International Business Machines (NYSE: IBM) has been one of the biggest contributors to those technological advances throughout its long history. With the development of the personal computer, IBM created a new wave of rising productivity that spread throughout the business world, and more recently, Big Blue has worked to develop greater expertise in software and services to go with its legendary hardware prowess. Yet investors in IBM haven't seen a stock split since 1999, and some think the company is overdue to split its shares. Let's take a closer look at IBM and see whether 2017 might finally be the year that investors get what they've wanted for so long.
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Image source: IBM.
IBM stock splits in the past
Here are the dates and split ratios for the stock splits that IBM has done in the past:
Data source: IBM investor relations. Note: Omits a number of stock dividends in the 2% to 5% range between 1928 and 1967.
As you can see, IBM has a long history of stock splits. Throughout much of its early history, moves were gradual, with split ratios that didn't have a huge impact on stock price. More recently, though, splits in the past 40 years have become much less common, but they've also come with more typical split ratios of two for one or greater.
What's particularly noteworthy about IBM is that it has never been afraid of having a high share price. For instance, in the early 1970s, IBM's share price routinely traded in the $200 to $450 range, and the company's decision to do a stock split in 1973 still left the post-split price at more than $300 per share.
Yet in 1979, IBM started to follow a course that was more typical among stocks at the time. The company's 4-for-1 split that year took IBM stock back into double-digit prices, and shares traded below $75 following the move. With adverse market conditions ensuing, IBM shares didn't break back into triple digits until 1983, as the rise of the personal computer started to lift Big Blue's prospects. For the rest of the 1980s, IBM traded well above the $100 per share mark.
However, IBM struggled in the 1990s. As the rest of the technology industry was making cutting-edge innovations, IBM was slow to respond to new competitive pressures. Its share price was cut in half, making splits completely unnecessary. Only once new management took over and started transforming the business to join the new networking revolution did IBM start climbing again. By 1997, the stock climbed to nearly $180 per share, and that was enough to spur the company to do a 2-for-1 split to bring the share price briefly back into double digits.
The tech boom then grabbed IBM by the horns. In the space of less than two years, the stock jumped to nearly $250 per share. Only then did IBM do another split, and it was another 2-for-1 move, leaving the post-split price well in the triple-digit range.
Why IBM stopped splitting its shares
Following that success, IBM suddenly found itself a victim of the tech bust. Shares fell from 2000 to 2002, and Big Blue had to work hard to regain its competitive position in the space. Even when other tech companies started to rebound more sharply, IBM stock remained in the doldrums, and it wasn't until 2007 that the company once again pushed above the $100-per-share mark. After a brief drop during the financial crisis, Big Blue stayed in triple digits for good in late 2009.
Yet after climbing above $200 at various points in 2012 and 2013, IBM still didn't do a stock split. That move wasn't unprecedented, given IBM's history, and it also reflected changes in the way that tech companies in particular viewed stock splits. Many up-and-coming tech companies eschewed splits entirely, letting their share prices climb toward the $1,000 mark and beyond as a sign of their long-term success. For IBM, this represented a return to its mid-20th century practice of maintaining high share prices, and it hasn't been in any hurry to make moves ever since.
Why IBM probably won't split its shares in 2017
Right now, IBM shares trade in the $160s, and that's even down substantially from its recent highs. A dividend yield approaching 4% will also act as a headwind against share-price appreciation in the future. With a long-term strategic makeover for Big Blue still taking place, investors should probably look beyond 2017 before they can expect enough of an advance to justify IBM's next stock split.
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