Cable television is a huge business, and Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) has built itself into a leader in the industry. Comcast's long-term returns for shareholders have been extraordinary, with average annual returns of more than 15% over the past 35 years. Along the way, Comcast has done stock splits on a fairly regular basis, but it's been a decade since the cable giant made such a move. Some investors wonder whether 2017 might be the year for Comcast to split its shares. Below, we'll look more closely at the history of Comcast stock splits to see whether the cable company is likely to do one in 2017.


Image source: Comcast.

Comcast stock splits in the past

Here are the dates and split ratios for the stock splits that Comcast has done in the past:

Date of Split

Split Ratio

May 15, 1980

3-for-2

April 10, 1981

3-for-2

Jan. 5, 1983

3-for-2

Sep. 18, 1984

3-for-2

June 27, 1985

3-for-2

Dec. 18, 1986

3-for-2*

April 8, 1988

3-for-2*

Oct. 24, 1989

3-for-2*

Feb. 2, 1994

3-for-2*

May 5, 1999

2-for-1*

Feb. 21, 2007

3-for-2*

Data source: Comcast investor relations. * Represents stock split for which additional shares of CMCSK were issued for every CMCSA share.

As you can see, Comcast used to do stock splits very frequently. Yet it's been a decade since the last split, making some wonder whether the company has simply changed its fundamental approach toward splits.

When Comcast has historically done stock splits

A closer look at Comcast's stock split history shows that the cable giant embraced the practice of splitting its stock early in its history. In the early 1980s, 3-for-2 splits came on a very frequent basis, even when its stock price didn't seem to justify such a move. In 1980, for instance, Comcast stock hadn't even climbed above the $30 mark when the company decided to do its first stock split. Subsequent splits throughout the 1980s and early 1990s occurred when Comcast stock traded in the $25 to $35 per share range, which was an unusually low threshold even at the time.

One unusual aspect to consider with Comcast was that its multiple share class structure led it to handle stock splits differently from most companies. Beginning in 1986, when Comcast would do a stock split, it would distribute shares of its non-voting stock. As a result, those who owned ordinary voting shares wouldn't see the number of shares they owned change. However, the number of non-voting shares of the company would grow, and that would have the same downward effect on Comcast voting shares' price as a regular stock split would.

Only in 1999 did Comcast follow a stock split practice that looked closer to what most companies did in the past. The cable company let its stock climb to about $75 per share before doing a 2-for-1 split, taking the stock price back into the $30s. Yet in 2007, Comcast went back to its old ways, doing a 3-for-2 split with the stock in the low $40s.

What's happened with Comcast recently?

Since then, the stock price has climbed back into the $70s. One interesting move that Comcast made was to eliminate its non-voting shares, rolling them back into regular voting shares on a one-for-one basis. For those who kept all their non-voting shares from past splits, the net effect has turned out to be the same as if Comcast had simply done regular stock splits that didn't involve multiple share classes.

From a fundamental perspective, Comcast has worked hard to expand beyond its original roots. Like many cable operators, Comcast now offers a full suite of video, voice, and data services to offer a more complete solution to the telecom needs of its customers. In addition, its 2011 acquisition of NBCUniversal has given Comcast ownership of the NBC network as well as valuable cable-television networks like CNBC, USA, MSNBC, and E! Entertainment Television. That growth has helped propel its stock price upward in recent years, lifting it to levels that once again raise the stock split question.

Will Comcast do a split soon?

Industry practices regarding stock splits have changed dramatically over the past 10 to 20 years, and splits are now far less common. It's therefore not surprising that Comcast hasn't been in a hurry to split its shares. Yet some investors are nevertheless concerned, because the company has argued in the past that its split decisions were linked to its expectations. For instance, in the wake of the 2007 split, Comcast executives said that the move came "in recognition of our bullish outlook and successful growth in 2006." By that reasoning, the lack of a split seems to imply a lack of confidence and optimism in its future.

Comcast stock has risen high enough that a stock split in 2017 is a definite possibility. However, most investors are far more interested in seeing Comcast deliver the impressive total returns that it has produced in recent years.

Dan Caplinger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.