Foolish Fundamentals: Stock Dilution

Stock dilution refers to the issuance of additional stock by a company, for any purpose. Some of those purposes are bad for outside shareholders, some are neutral, and believe it or not, some are actually good. Let's look at all three scenarios and see how they would affect us as investors.

Let's start with a make-believe company that we can use as a guinea pig to show how its actions can affect its shareholders' ownership stakes. Imagine that this company is a high-tech start-up that aims to one-up stun-gun manufacturer Taser (NASDAQ:TASR). It's got a new weapon to sell that can be set not just to "stun" but also to "disintegrate," a feature that leaves nothing of its target behind but a hollow afterglow. The company is called Phaser (Ticker: RAYGUN). In 2005, Phaser had 100,000 shares of common stock outstanding, a market cap of $1 million -- and $100 of net profits.

Now, we need one more guinea pig. Let's call this one Joe Fool. He's an individual investor, and on Dec. 31, 2005, he bought 10,000 shares of Phaser stock. When the company reported its earnings, Joe was elated to learn that, by virtue of his ownership stake, he vicariously earned $10 worth of Phaser's profits. Little did he know what 2006 held in store for him.

Bad stock dilution
In 2006, Phaser decides to engage in the worst of the three main ways that companies dilute their shareholders: It issues 100,000 stock options to its CEO. For the time being, Phaser has a "basic share count" of 100,000 shares actually outstanding. But because its CEO will eventually exercise his stock options (i.e., tell the company to issue 100,000 shares to him and then sell them on the open market), Phaser now has a hypothetical, or "diluted," share count of 200,000 shares.

That's bad news for Joe. While he will still own his 10,000 shares, his ownership stake will be diluted once the company issues that extra stock. What does that mean? Well, when Phaser's share count stood at 100,000, and it earned $100, Joe was entitled to 10% (10,000/100,000) worth of those profits, or $10.

But when Phaser issues those 100,000 extra shares, Joe's shares will not equal 10% but just 5% (10,000/200,000) of all shares outstanding. If Phaser earns $100 again in 2005, Joe's take from that haul is just $5. Poor Joe.

The CEO, on the other hand, gets 100,000/200,000 worth of the profits, or $50. Lucky CEO!

Thus, the primary reason Fools dislike stock dilution is that it often represents a transfer of wealth from outside shareholders -- you and me -- to insiders.

Ambiguous stock dilution
Stock dilution, however, isn't always bad. But before we look at when it can be good, let's consider the iffy situation of a company that acquires another one and pays for the purchase in stock. Say Phaser wants to expand its business but it hasn't gotten its gun to work just yet. That poses a problem. As the solution, Phaser decides to buy out a rival, defense contractor General Dynamics (NYSE:GD). Since Phaser hasn't sold anything and doesn't have any actual, er, cash, it wants to issue its own stock to General D shareholders in exchange for their shares.

Now, General D has a market cap of roughly $20 billion. With Phaser shares trading for $10 a stub, our intrepid Trekkie will have to issue 2 billion new shares to acquire its heart's desire. Doing that will dilute Joe, and Phaser's other shareholders, by 200,000 times. In what universe could that much dilution possibly be a good deal for Phaser shareholders?

The answer requires another question: Is Phaser overpaying for its purchase? If Phaser pays a price equal to General D's intrinsic value as a business, then the dilution created by the purchase does not really hurt Joe. Yes, Joe's slice of the merged Phaser/General D pie looks much smaller than his slice of Phaser alone does. But the new pie is much bigger. Picture this: Joe's receiving a much thinner but also much longer slice of Phaser/General D pie, in return for his original wide but stubby slice of Phaser.

A smaller piece of a bigger pie
And there's another possibility to consider. Alone, Phaser may not be objectively "worth" the $1 million market cap that the market accords it. If Phaser's stock is overvalued, then paying for an acquisition in inflated-value stock may be a smarter move than paying in cash. During the go-go '90s, most every acquisition you saw from companies such as Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO) or Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) was paid for in richly valued stock. And should we see cash-rich companies such as Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) or Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) making acquisitions, I'd wager good money that they, too, will nonetheless choose to pay in stock. (Interpret that as you will.)

Take my shares . please!
And that brings us to the third major form of stock dilution: secondary offerings. When Phaser gives 100,000 shares to its CEO for a nominal "exercise" price, that's bad for outside shareholders. But what if, before Phaser decides to go that route, message-board rumor mill gets going and anoints Phaser as the next moon-rocket stock? As Phaser's stock price doubles, triples, and then jumps 10 times more, company management reconsiders, decides to not issue options, and instead sells the 100,000 shares on the open market -- at $600 a pop.

If the company's intrinsic value hasn't changed, and if only its stock price has increased, then this is great news for Joe. After the secondary offering is completed, he again owns 10,000 shares out of 200,000, or 5% -- down from his original 10%. However, Phaser itself is now worth more -- not just from the rumor-bubble pricing of its stock but also intrinsically, because the company has traded 100,000 shares for $60 million in cash. That cash now sits in the company's bank account, and Joe owns 5% of it, or $3 million.

So to sum up, whenever a company issues shares at a price higher than the shares' intrinsic value -- whether it does so to buy another company or to sell the shares and raise cash on the market -- an outside shareholder benefits, despite his or her percentage of ownership being diluted.

And there you have it: the three primary sources of stock dilution, and what they mean to you as an outside shareholder.

Taser is aMotley Fool Rule Breakersrecommendation, and Microsoft is aMotley Fool Inside Valuepick.

Rich Smith, Shruti Basavaraj, and Adrian Rush contributed to this article.

Read/Post Comments (4) | Recommend This Article (20)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On August 08, 2011, at 5:29 PM, sidneyleejohnson wrote:

    The actual warrant offset was 4,496,367.

    Not sure entirely how they arrived at that figure. It may have something to do with the weighted average strike price among the warrants outstanding vs the average strike reported ; or there were some that were exercised during the quarter which throws off the estimate. Or they just had some weird way of calculating the value of the remaining offset that doesn't comply with a typical option calculator

  • Report this Comment On August 11, 2013, at 2:16 PM, Erokhane wrote:

    LOL. Stock dilution should be a SERIOUS crime. A true owner who owns a percentage of a company can't have that percentage of ownership reduced by the whims of some executives.

    And giving the option to a true owner to buy more of what the owner already owns is a scam. If you own something, why would anyone have the right to give the TRUE owner the option to keep owning that something that the owner already owns?

    Stocks are more like loans. They don't represent true ownership. Now if an owner decides to sell part of his TRUE share of a company, then that's fair.

    But stock-splitting is simply criminal, unless agreed to by all TRUE owners of the company.

  • Report this Comment On February 15, 2014, at 10:00 PM, Sumflow wrote:

    Dilute weakens, accretive strengths.

  • Report this Comment On April 24, 2015, at 12:43 AM, newto wrote:

    Is there a maximum amount of new shares a company can issue?

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