As stocks soar, more join the $100 Club

Associated Press Modified: October 21, 2012 at 11:30 am •  Published: October 21, 2012
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NEW YORK (AP) — High prices help sell watches, sports cars and handbags by suggesting rare quality. Now, they may be helping sell stocks, too.

The number of stocks priced at $100 or more is at a multi-decade high. Companies worried that sticker shock would keep small investors from buying used to split their shares in two or more to lower the price. But now splits are scarce, and a triple-digit stock has cachet.

"It shows investors have confidence in you," says Jon Johnson, editor of Stocksplits.net, an investing newsletter. "It's another thing you can point to and say, "We're doing fine in uncertain times."

Jeffrey Hirsch, editor of the Stock Trader's Almanac, calls it a new "badge of achievement."

Among stocks in the Standard & Poor's 500 index, 42 trade for $100 or more, according to Howard Silverblatt of S&P Dow Jones Indices, which manages the index. That is the highest in his records, which date back 36 years.

A surging stock market has helped lift the price of stocks, as has inflation over the years. But experts suggest a bigger reason is that more companies are refusing to cut prices with splits that swaps a single share for multiple shares. A two-for-one split, for instance, cuts a $100 share into two $50 shares.

Other features of the rise of triple-digit stocks:

— It reflects an investor retreat. Companies used to split shares because they worried small investors would get spooked by a $100 price tag, Silverblatt says. But Main Street folks have been selling hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of individual stocks from their brokerage accounts in the past 5½ years, according to the Federal Reserve. That has left much of the stock trading to professional investors and hedge funds and other so-called institutions with plenty of money. So companies don't feel pressure to split shares.

"They don't care about the individuals anymore," says Kristina Minnick, a finance professor at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass. Their owners are "mostly institutions, and (high prices) don't faze them."

— Credit lower trading fees, too. Investors once bought and sold stock mostly in so-called round lots of 100 to avoid paying higher broker commissions for so-called odd lots. A high stock price made buying in blocks of 100 out of reach for some small investors. That was one reason companies split their stocks.

In 1975, regulators banned fixed minimum charges for stock trading, forcing brokers to compete on commissions. Fees plummeted further with online trading in the 1990s. Now, discount brokers charge a straight fee per transaction, sometimes as low as $2, so it doesn't matter how many shares you buy.

— It's no bull-market fluke. When the market was higher, at its October 2007 peak, $100-plus stocks numbered 33, fewer than today. In the dot-com boom in 1999, 27 breached the triple-digit mark. In 1985, a peak year for that decade, only 17 hit that mark, though the number for that year is higher if you adjust for inflation.



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