Berkshire Hathaway shareholders will vote Wednesday on a 50-to-1 split of the company's Class B shares to finance a $26 billion purchase of Burlington Northern railway. Chairman Warren Buffett has described this purchase as an "all-in wager on the economic future of the United States" that, while potentially incurring short-term losses, will benefit Berkshire Hathaway over time. This reasoned, patient approach is trademark Buffett -- the kind of investing that has spawned countless imitations. If tomorrow's vote goes through, as the Wall Street Journal reports it likely will, average investors will no longer have to resort to crude mimicry of Buffett's strategy--they'll be able to purchase shares of his company.
Historically, Berkshire Hathaway shares have been split into Class A, which closed at $97,500 each on Friday, and Class B--known as "Baby Bs"--which closed at $3,247. These lofty prices discouraged small retail investors and the high-frequency traders who can buy and sell millions of shares in a millisecond. A 50-to-1 split of the B shares would drop their price to around $65, enabling an influx of new investors and making the company eligible for inclusion in the S&P 500 index (Berkshire Hathaway is the largest corporation excluded from the index).
Since Buffett has previously expressed concern that a share split would discourage long-term investing, the Burlington deal must have been attractive enough to change his mind. Opening up Berkshire to a new cadre of investors may puncture the legendary aura surrounding Buffett's company, but it also exemplifies the pragmatism responsible for creating the aura in the first place.