In some notable ways, the IPO market isn’t quite what it used to be. Fewer startups are going public these days, often selling out to bigger firms or just regarding a stock market debut the way a dental patient looks forward to a root canal.
Nonetheless, the past 10 years has been busy enough for the U.S. IPO market, with some big names like Facebook, General Motors and Alibaba entering the stock market. All told, 1,689 IPOs debuted on U.S. exchanges, raising an aggregate $435 billion in proceeds, according to Renaissance Capital, a provider of institutional research and IPO ETFs.
The pace of new listings is slower than in previous decades. According to research from Jay Ritter, a finance professor at the University of Florida, the number of IPOs this decade is more than 60% lower than the new offerings in the last two decades of the 20th century, a relative boom time for IPOs.
And while there has been an increase in tech IPOs, the larger market for new issues can be characterized by companies waiting longer and longer to go public. The median time from founding a tech company to an IPO was 11 years this past decade, up from seven years in the late 20th century. “Small tech firms, in particular, have stopped going public. Instead, most successful tech startups sell out to a bigger tech company such as Cisco Systems, Oracle, Alphabet,” Ritter says.
A look at some of the most important IPOs of the past ten years also shows both how trends in raising corporate capital are evolving, as well as how tastes among investors have also shifted over time.
November 2010. Return from IPO: Up 13%
A year and a half after filing for bankruptcy, GM staged one of the largest IPOs in history, raising $20.1 billion at $33 a share. The listing was notable for another reason: GM’s largest shareholder was the U.S. Treasury, after the federal government staged a $33 billion bailout of the auto-making giant.
“It was the privatization of a government-owned asset, something you never thought you’d see in the U.S.,” says Smith. GM returned to profitability the following year, presenting a powerful symbol that the worst of the financial crisis had passed.
May 2012. Return from IPO: Up 433%
After LinkedIn went public in 2011 and saw its price double in one day, Facebook was supposed to signal the all-clear for other tech startups to go public. It’s somewhat forgotten today, but Facebook’s debut and first year were actually rocky. The IPO was considered “botched” after a trading snag on its first day, and concerns about its mobile growth weighed on investors.
Once Facebook proved its financial skeptics wrong, its stock took off, paving the way for other tech holdouts to go public in the following years. Investors still uneasy in the wake of the Great Recession were looking for a company to break the ice and create demand for other brand-name IPOs. Facebook did that—it just took a year or so longer than what Wall Street had hoped.
September 2014. Return from IPO: Up 209%
Once the logjam cleared out of the IPO pipeline, more offerings flowed through, culminating in the decade’s busiest year in 2014. Companies raised a collective $85.3 billion that year, with $25 billion of that going to China’s up-and-coming e-commerce giant, Alibaba.
“Alibaba’s IPO was like China’s coming out party,” Smith says. “It wasn’t just the size, it also reflected the acceptance of China and its technology segment.” Dozens of other Chinese tech companies staged IPOs in U.S. this decade. But that may change: Alibaba raised $11 billion in a separate offering in Hong Kong last month, signaling Chinese companies may raise more money closer to home in the thick of a trade war.
December 2018. Return from IPO: Down 16%
“Because biotech IPOs are almost never household names, they haven’t gotten as much attention, but they have been the largest industry in the IPO market from 2013 until now, in terms of the number of deals,” says Ritter. “Investors have been funding hundreds of companies, most of which not only have no profits, they don’t even have any revenue at the time of going public.”
That may make biotech IPOs especially risky for investors inexperienced with them, but by raising money in IPOs, biotechs can carry their drug development to the point when Big Pharma takes an interest and invests in or buys out a promising startup. Among the hundreds of biopharma and other drugmaker startups that went public this decade, Moderna’s was the largest, raising $600 million.
April 2018. Return from offering price: Up 14%
Okay, this one wasn’t an IPO, but Spotify’s listing is notable because it may end up having a significant effect on the future IPO market. Spotify bypassed the traditional (and costly) IPO underwriting process of working with Wall Street bankers, and used a direct listing—historically an uncommon option used solely by smaller companies.
Spotify registered $7.4 billion worth of shares in the direct offering, Smith says, which would have made it the fifth largest IPO in the last 10 years had it taken that route. Slack followed this year with its own direct listing, and Airbnb is said to be planning one in 2020. Once, companies like Google used auctions, which can also involve lower listing fees. But the last IPO by auction was in 2013, Ritter says. Instead, it’s direct listings that may grow more common in the future.
May 2019. Return from IPO: Down 33%
Uber went from one of the most celebrated of Silicon Valley unicorns to one of the most controversial. But it’s also emblematic of the unicorns that held out as long as possible from going public, tapping venture capital firms, sovereign wealth funds, and private capital markets for billions before giving in and entering the public stock market.
Other holdouts like Lyft, SmileDirectClub, and WeWork also tested the public markets in 2019. The first two saw their stocks fall as investors took a harder look at unicorn losses, while WeWork didn’t even make it out of the gate, pulling its IPO several weeks after filing a prospectus. If anything, the reception (or lack thereof) for Uber, Lyft and WeWork suggest the IPO market is working as it should at the end of this decade, even if private markets have been less discerning.
“I view the we work meltdown as public markets working,” Ritter says “You need a situation WeWork every once in a while to remind people you do have to do due diligence.”
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