Friday evening when no one was supposed to pay attention, Google announced that Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt would sell 3.2 million of his Google shares in 2013, 42% of the 7.6 million shares he owned at the end of last year—after having already sold 1.8 million shares in 2012. But why would he sell 5 million shares, about 53% of his holdings, with Google stock trading near its all-time high?
“Part of his long-term strategy for individual asset diversification and liquidity,” Google mollified us, according to the Wall Street Journal. Soothing words. Nothing but “a routine diversification of assets.”
Routine? He didn’t sell any in 2008 as the market was crashing. He didn’t sell at the bottom in early 2009. And he didn’t sell during the rest of 2009 as Google shares were soaring, nor in 2010, as they continued to soar. In 2011, he eased out of about 300,000 shares, a mere rounding error in his holdings. But in 2012, he opened the valves, and in 2013, he’d open the floodgates. So it’s not “routine.”
Liquidity, Google said. In 2012, he reaped about $1.2 billion from stock sales, and if he can sell this year’s portion at the current price, he’ll reap $2.5 billion. $3.7 billion in total. What exactly would he need that kind of liquidity for? He could buy a Boeing 787, if it ever becomes airworthy again, plus a few castles, dozens of handmade exotic cars…. And it would barely scratch the surface.
Diversification, Google said. Sure, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Though he didn’t need to diversity from 2008 through 2011, he now needs to diversify urgently. The landscape has changed. And he is reacting to it.
He could diversify into treasuries, for example, which would guarantee him a loss after inflation, thanks to the Fed-imposed financial repression that governs our crazy lives. Or he could buy lots of gold or a myriad of other assets that he thinks make more sense than holding Google stock at the current price.
So, we’re left wondering if there’s something waiting to happen at Google that prescient execs with a phenomenal understanding of the company and the industry can see on the horizon. Google has plowed a lot of money into startups, green energy, and other mind-boggling projects. He might be worried that they won’t pan out, that they’ll have to be cleared off the balance sheet with a huge write-off. He might be worried about a million things.
Yet the fact that he sold practically nothing during the bull market of 2009-2011 suggests that he may see something beyond Google: the hoped for Great Rotation, for example—from those who know to those who don’t. From the Eric Schmidts to mom-and-pop retail investors. And once that’s accomplished….
Small investors lost a bundle in the last crash. At the end of their wits, they got out at the bottom, and stayed out during the subsequent run-up. But now, they’ve been driven to desperation by the Fed’s zero-interest-rate policy, as inflation has hammered their CDs that yield almost nothing. In order to stop losing money slowly but surely, they’re jumping into the stock market once again, buying the very shares Schmidt is selling—or so the smart money hopes—only to face once again the risk of losing a lot of money fast.
That was the Fed’s policy every time. They didn’t care in 2000 that the market demolished a bunch of young upstarts that had gotten unjustifiably and unnecessarily rich. Let them crash. They did it again during the financial crisis. Let them crash. Only when it started taking down their cronies, did they get nervous—and handed them trillions.
Mr. Schmidt isn’t alone. Corporate insiders were “aggressively selling their shares,” reported Mark Hulbert. And they were doing so “at an alarming pace.” The buy sell-to-buy ratio had risen to 9.2-to-1; insiders had sold over 9 times as many shares as they’d bought. They’d been aggressive sellers for weeks. That they dumped shares in December, when the sell-to-buy ratio was 8.38-to-1, could have been the result of the fiscal-cliff theatrics, but the latest sell-to-buy ratio was even worse.
Instantly, soothing voices were heard: “don’t be alarmed,” they said. But Mr. Schmidt and his colleagues at the top of corporate America, multi-billionaires many of them, are immensely well connected, not only to each other but also to the Fed, whose twelve regional Federal Reserve Banks they own and control.
For the mere public, there have been vague and mixed signals that the Fed might finally stop its drunken printing frenzy—that the only thing it is waiting for is the completion of the Great Rotation of equities from the smart money to mom-and-pop money. Once that’s completed, to heck with the markets. But for Mr. Schmidt and his buddies, the signals might not have been vague and mixed, but clear and actionable.
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