While writing about high profile divorces is a means of attracting readers, it really leaves most of us feeling “empty” when it comes to how it relates to our ordinary lives. But the announcement this week of the divorce agreement between Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos made the front page of the Wall Street Journal. There is a reason for this. Unlike the split of say P. Diddy and Cassandra Ventura announced in October, the Bezos divorce actually could affect our lives if we own anything besides a token piece of Amazon. Can that be? NBC announced the story Wednesday morning just as markets opened. Stock price then $1,656. It closed the day at $1659. But when markets opened this morning (1/10), they did so at $1,640. We don’t know what causes these variations but the Bezos divorce was front page of today’s major news outlets.
Why would anyone care? Mr. Diddy is estimated to be worth almost a billion dollars. What composes that billion is unknown to us. But Jeff Bezos is worth $150 billion and the far biggest piece of that is 16% of all Amazon stock, about 79,000,000 shares. If $150 billion is an accurate estimate and $130 billion of it is in AMZN stock, a lot of that stock is in play in the divorce process.
This was a long-term marriage (25 years) in an equitable distribution state. The latter phrase means that Mackenzie does not automatically get 50% as she would in a community property state. But, this transaction was most likely not: “you take the house(s) and the cars, I’ll keep my stock.” Lots of ink has been spilled in the Jack Welch and Frank McCourt divorces about what a non-entrepreneur spouse should get. But even if Ms. Bezos took only 30-40% of the marital estate and kept the house and 401(K), she is still going to walk away with a piece of Amazon that would rival those held by Vanguard and Blackrock. Vanguard and Blackrock represent hundreds of thousands of investors. Mackenzie Bezos is a party of one. As one of the tiny pieces of Vanguard, I bought knowing that Bezos was the lead dog and that lead dogs understand the responsibilities of owning 16% of the entire kennel. But all I know about Ms. Bezos is that she is a novelist who married her husband when Amazon was still a book distributor and that today she may have the power to put stock to the market in some ways that could create dangerous volatility for those of us with smaller stakes. If there is a consolation for the small investor, it is that the Bezos’ appear to live in Medina Washington where community property presumptions of 50/50 don’t apply. Then again, the Bezos do have homes in a couple of community property states so their real residence state may be not what we think. A community property state could signal a $75 billion dollar settlement and a larger piece of Amazon.
So what has this to do with mere mortals? The answer is liquidity. We commonly see business entrepreneurs or their spouses in a world where 70-90% of their wealth is enmeshed in a closely held business. They are divorced as commonly as anyone else is but they typically ignore the liquidity crisis which divorce can trigger. Folks like Bezos have some relief from this particular headache. Their stock is public and can be sold. But ask any senior executive in a publicly traded company how much freedom public securities offer them and they will respond: damn little. There are blackout periods when they cannot trade and every time they do, the investor community is combing the SEC records to see who sold and wonder why stock was sold unless the sky was ready to fall.
You don’t have to be a Bezos to have this problem. Every day we insure houses and their contents based upon an unlikely casualty contingency. In so doing we anticipate and hedge against a remote possibility. We do the same with both life and disability insurance policies. But few of us ever look at our own portfolio of assets and ask; what if my spouse announced “Game over.” It is not a pleasant thing to think about. But chances of a house fire are pegged at about 1:3000. The number of divorces in the United States exceed the number of house fires by 2:1.
Most people reading this will dismiss it. “I’m not getting divorced.” Those deniers seem to think that they are the only spouse who could be unhappy in their marriage. So why diversity and attempt to arrange the balance sheet so that illiquid assets are a smaller piece of the portfolio. There is actually a second reason. It is reflected in the Greek tragedy called “Theranos” where a $10 billion dollar valuation in 2015 turned into criminal indictments of management three years later. Enron was $92 a share in 2000 and half that price a year later. GE lost half its market capitalization between June 2017 and the same time this year. It has declined another third since then. So there are many reasons to accept the bromide that there can be too much of a good thing. Even if you are a Bezos and even if you have 200 shares in your retirement plan.