Should we be scandalized by IPO pops?
So, I’m late to this. There’s a big link parade at the end of the post.
LinkedIn had an IPO on May 19, priced at $45 per share. The stock briefly sold in the $120s that day, and closed at $94.25. In the lingo, there was a big “pop”.
From a certain perspective, IPO pops are puzzling, even scandalous, events. Here is the theory of the outraged:
- Shares are assets with real economic value that professional investment bankers, after communicating with “the investor community”, are capable of discerning.
- The price at which those shares will trade in public markets, on the first day and thereafter, is a reasonable approximation of real economic value, because stock markets are efficient.
- Therefore, if investment banks (who, in consultation with the issuer, set the IPO price) sell the shares for substantially less than the price at which the shares trade on the open market, they have screwed their client. The issuing firm and its original investors have “left money on the table” by failing to extract the full value their shares. Meanwhile, someone, some flipper, will have purchased shares at the IPO price and resold them after the pop, taking profits that might have gone to the issuer.
- So issuers really ought to be upset about IPO pops (even though they mostly aren’t). “I don’t understand why competitive forces don’t drive this kind of egregious underpricing out of the system,” a finance professor tells the Financial Times.
Puzzle, puzzle, toil and trouble. Here’s a tidbit to taunt the good professor: In the 1990s and especially during the tech bubble, pops tended to be larger for IPOs led by “top tier“, high market-share investment banks than when shares were offered via midlevel underwriters. It’s a topsy turvy world, apparently. During hot IPO cycles, when underpricing is especially pronounced, “competitive forces” seem actively to favor underpricers.
Pretty much every premise of the case against IPO pops is false. Shares of all but the most staid firms do not have known, predictable economic values that highly trained professionals can predict ex ante. Further, share prices are autocorrelated, which is a fancy way of saying that if a stock trades for $100 today, it is more likely to trade above $100 three months from now than a stock that trades today for $50. There are lots of ways to interpret share price autocorrelation. Perhaps markets are efficient, so that a high price today is indicative of durable economic value. Perhaps markets are not so efficient, but investors nevertheless use yesterday’s price to determine the price at which shares will trade today.
Regardless of which story you believe, consider the situation of insiders and early investors in IPO firms. These investors face a “lock-up” period of three to six months after the IPO, during which they cannot sell. (This is intended as a kind of guarantee to new buyers that the shares are not total lemons.) If you hold a share of stock that you cannot sell for several months, you are better off, in a statistical sense, if the shares that you hold trade for $100 today than if they trade for $50 today. Sure, even after a pop, share prices could wither to worthlessness by the time the lock-up period ends. And sometimes that happens. But overall, if you are a preexisting investor in an IPO firm, the expected future value of your shares is substantially higher if your shares trade at $100 now than if they trade at $50.
So, if you are an early investor in a firm now making its debut, an IPO pop is mixed news. On the one hand, discovering that the shares you continue to own are very valuable is good news. On the other hand, if it is true that you could have sold the shares that you did sell for this much higher price, you’ve been screwed. On balance, how should a rational shareholder evaluate these conflicting signals? Should she be glad or disappointed? Should she fire her shoddy investment bank or celebrate its success?
If you are sure that stock markets are completely efficient and so share prices are independent of all the schmoozing and marketing done by your underwriter, then you should be outraged. You would have learned the same good news had you gone with a different investment bank, and your underwriter, if it were more competent or less corrupt, could have set a higher price and made you a great deal more money. But if you think that the stuff investment banks do when they underwrite an IPO actually does affect the price at which shares eventually trade, you might not be so angry. You might consider the “money left on the table” to be part of the fee you pay in order to be made as rich as possible.
IPOs are not all alike. In the lingo, they are sometimes “financing events” and they are sometimes “pricing events”. When IPOs are financing events, insiders are selling substantial fractions of their firms, trying to to divest their holdings or raise large sums for corporate purposes. When they are “pricing events” insiders are selling a small fraction of their shares in order to gain various benefits that come with being a public firm. In a “financing event”, when insiders are selling a lot of stock, the money left on the table from an IPO pop might amount to a substantial fraction of total equity value, too much money to be treated as a transaction cost. But in a “pricing event”, the money left on the table in a pop — the “opportunity cost of issuance” — may not be so large.
A very good predictor of how much an IPO will pop is “overhang”, the ratio of shares retained by insiders to shares sold during an IPO. IPOs with high overhang — that is, IPOs where insiders are selling only a small fraction of the firm — are much more likely to pop than IPOs in which investors are selling a lot of their shares. (This is true even controlling for the absolute value of shares sold, so it is unlikely to be just an artifact of scarcity.) To my mind, the explanation for this regularity is simple. Investment banks behave differently for high overhang IPOs (“pricing events”) than for low overhang IPOs (“financing events”).
For low overhang IPOs, in which much of the firm is being sold, underwriters go for accuracy. Investment banks do not want clients to spread word that they lost half the value of their firm to flippers on the big day. So bankers work to keep the IPO price and the immediate market price aligned. They try to set a reasonable price in the first place, they place shares with investors likely to sell pops and buy dips, they stabilize prices directly via their own activity in the market. (Underwriters have a partial exemption from market manipulation rules that allows them to “stabilize” new issues.)
But for high overhang IPOs, investment banks, in consultation with their clients, go for broke. The “book-building” process, often described as an anodyne sounding of investor interest, becomes an occasion to market the hell out of the issue. Investment banker activity, proxied by changes (even downward changes) to the planned issue price are predictors of IPO pops. For high overhang IPOs, underwriters and their clients agree that everything that can be done should be done to get the shares trading at the highest valuation possible, despite a necessarily conservative issue price.
When only a small fraction of a firm is being sold, issuers quite rationally permit investment banks to underprice their IPOs, because doing so aligns underwriters interests with their own. Issuers want their firms to be highly valued. An issuer who makes it clear that she will hold her underwriter accountable for underpricing is behaving foolishly, threatening to punish an outcome she desires. A smart issuer understands perfectly well that money left on the table will be used as kickbacks to favored clients of the investment bank. But why should she mind? She views that money as performance pay, a transaction expense. Given the small fraction of shares sold, it represents a modest cost. Further, she understands that the reason she chose her market-leading, high reputation underwriter is precisely because of the bank’s relationships with institutional investors, the bank’s ability to persuade people in its rolodex to take up and hold (not flip) new issues. If the issuer is not naive, she knows that the underwriter’s ability to place shares comes from plum deals the bank frequently offers the people in its rolodex. With the money she leaves on the table, the issuer is paying for exactly what she is trying to buy.
Efficient markets proponents will blanche at this whole scenario. How can underwriters affect share values? Surely, investment banks can’t “fool” the market over a six month lock-up period?! But nobody is fooling anybody, exactly. Nobody — not Warren Buffett, not the firm’s CEO, not even your psychic friend at Goldman Sachs — knows the “true value” of a speculative firm. A small rejiggering of earnings growth assumptions or the appropriate discount rate can double or halve estimates of “economic value”. The dirty little secret of fundamental analysis is that it can never tell you the correct price of a stock. Fundamental analysis can indicate that a price is wrong, that it is deeply below or outrageously above any reasonable valuation. But an independent analysis (one that ignores the market and estimates value based on a discount rate and expected cash flows) will very rarely approximate actual share prices (unless the analyst cheats, and reverse engineers the market). What issuers believe a good investment bank can do, with its marketing and its reputation, is get the shares trading on the optimistic end of the range of reasonable valuations. And that, to preexisting shareholders, can be much, much more valuable than a bit of money left on the table from underpricing.
So, is there any scandal here at all? I think so, but it’s not about investment banks screwing underwriting clients. On the contrary, I think investment banks usually serve both their underwriting clients and their favored investors pretty well. The scandal, I think, is that the IPO process offers issuers, underwriters, and favored investors too much and the rest of us too little. After the first day pop, IPOs tend to underperform other issues over the long term. Not by enough to reverse the first-day pop over the lock-up period. On average, new IPOs don’t underperform the market very much in the first six months after the pop. (During the 2000s, IPOs did perform poorly even in the first six months, but that is probably because the tech bubble crashed within 6 months of many IPOs.) IPOs get optimistically priced on their first day, and whoever winds up holding the shares from the end of the lock-up period and out several years pays for that. In general, buying IPOs at the issue price is a great deal, while buying IPOs on the secondary market is hazardous even a year or two after the offering. The IPO process ends up being a boon to insiders (the issuer, its underwriter, and favored investors), which is paid for over time by less connected investors who fail to demand a sufficient premium to hold recently IPO-ed shares.
In the scheme of things, this is pretty small beans. Caveat emptor and all of that. Still, a practice that taxes investors broadly in order to reward people for systematically mispricing securities does deserve some tut-tutting.
P.S. The academic literature on IPO underpricing is all about kickbacks. I prefer my conspiracy theories to be fringe, but this is all pretty mainstream. Famous explanations describe underpricing as a kickback necessary to induce uninformed investors to participate, or to induce informed investors to reveal what they know during the book-building process. For a real conspiracy theory, check out spinning, which has investment banks offering kickbacks to managers so that they’ll tolerate underpricing that screws their own firms’ shareholders.
- 4-June-2011, 4:25 p.m. EDT: Changed an “and” to a “so”, so it’d read better. Also change “And sometimes that does happen” to “”And sometimes that happens”.
- 11-July-2011, 11:30 p.m. EDT: Replaced a “they” with “shares”, the intended but missing antecedent. Removed an ungrammatical “to”. No substantive changes.