Google’s parent company, Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOG) (NASDAQ: GOOGL), comes in two flavors. There’s the Class C stock with the GOOG ticker, and then we have the Class A stock called GOOGL.
That’s not quite the whole story, actually. There’s a third type of Alphabet stock, but the Class B shares are not available to the public.
The difference between these classes of Alphabet stock is not immediately obvious. According to Google’s own search algorithm, people who are searching for information about GOOGL will also often wonder what the difference is between Class A and Class C, and which one is the better buy.
So let’s take a quick look at this classy conundrum.
What’s the difference?
Technically speaking, there is just one difference between Alphabet’s three stock classes. It’s all about voting power.
The Class A stock carries one vote per share in every situation that counts up shareholder ballots.
Class C shares have no voting powers at all.
The Class B stock consists of so-called supervoting shares. Here, each stub comes with 10 votes.
This structure was designed to protect the ownership stakes of Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Together, the two executives currently hold 86% of the Class B shares, which translates into a 51.4% share of Alphabet’s total voting power.
When the company issues new shares through the employee equity incentive program or acquires another company in a stock-swap deal, the new stubs can fall under the Class C type if the influx of new voting stock would change that balance of power. This way, Brin and Page continue to exercise absolute control of Alphabet’s voting matters. It would take a shareholder vote to change that policy, and that idea is unlikely to win a majority of the votes unless at least one of Google’s founding fathers is voting in favor.
So, Class B stock is not traded on the public market and there is no effective difference between Class A and Class C. Yes, Class A comes with voting powers, but as I mentioned, Brin and Page essentially run the show as they see fit.
OK, but is one category a better investment than the other?
The company then known as Google introduced the vote-less Class C shares on April 3, 2014. This stock split was performed as a special dividend, giving shareholders one brand-new Class C share for each Class A or Class B stub they already owned. The Class C stock carried on under the old GOOG ticker and Class A moved over to the new GOOGL symbol. The company counted its shares two weeks later, preparing its official filings for the first quarter of 2014, and the number of vote-holding Class A and Class B stubs added up to almost exactly the number of vote-less Class C shares.
Things have changed a bit over the past eight years. Alphabet has increased the number of A shares by 6.5%, according to this week’s second-quarter report. Meanwhile, 20.4% of the Class B shares have been converted into other classes, and the Class C count is down by 8.2%. These figures took the recent 20-for-1 stock split into account, of course. Again, Brin and Page hold a 51.4% majority in this scenario. That’s down from 61.3% in early 2014, but it’s still a comfortably controlling stake.
You might expect the different share classes to deliver substantially different market returns, since the Class A stock has been diluted over time while Class C moved in the opposite direction. However, the company assigns its earnings per share and other financial results in a method that keeps the financial interests of each share equal in each report. So there is no fiscal reason to value one stock above or below the other. The voting powers don’t make a real-world difference, either.
Therefore, the stocks have posted nearly identical shareholder returns since the split. Here’s how the two market-beating charts have shaped up since April 2014:
Is there really no difference at all?
You could consider other metrics, of course. Company insiders and financial institutions own more of the vote-empowered Class A stock than they do the non-voting Class C. The voting stock also experiences slightly heavier trading volumes on average. And when short-sellers are betting against Alphabet, their pre-sold stock is more commonly borrowed from the voting side of the fence.
None of this matters in any game-changing way. Where one class of Alphabet stock is going, the other one will follow. Personally, I sold my vote-less Class C shares in 2014 and replaced them with more of the voting stock, for the simple reason that I believe in acting as if I own a small part of the actual company.
My votes won’t change the outcome of any elections or ballots, of course, so even this idea is just an academic exercise. And I’m happy to wield my minuscule voting power, every chance I get. If nothing else, it’s a reminder of the business ownership that comes with buying a stock.
But that’s my choice, and you may feel differently about this small distinction. You should feel free to invest in either GOOG or GOOGL stock, or both if you prefer. There are no trading fees to worry about these days, so any combination goes. If you like to read proxy filings and vote in the annual shareholder meetings, you should pick up some Class A shares of Alphabet under the GOOGL ticker. And if you’d rather keep your inbox free from vote-related emails, you can select the Class C stock with the GOOG ticker instead.
It really doesn’t matter which way you lean. Whichever stock ticker you like, Alphabet remains a fantastic long-term investment in the digital future of the global economy.
Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. Anders Bylund has positions in Alphabet (A shares). The Motley Fool has positions in and recommends Alphabet (A and C shares). The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.