The Wall Street IPO: the latest target of the culture of disruption

Wall Street Bull

Slowly but surely, the demand for initial public offerings of shares in companies new to the US stock market is picking up – at least, if we’re to judge by levels of activity.

In the second quarter of 2015, 75 companies completed IPOs, raising more than $13bn, according to data from PwC. That’s significantly higher than the 41 transactions in the first three months of the year, which raised a mere $6.2bn.

Now, two weeks into the third quarter, the trend seems to be intact. Despite the stock market’s turbulent performance, including triple-digit losses sparked by concerns about Greece and China, this week may see no fewer than eight IPOs hit the market, offering the chance to invest in everything from a cybersecurity firm to a boat manufacturer – and even a Chinese wealth management business.

Some of this year’s IPOs have done very well. Consider Fitbit, the darling of the wearable technology world, which went public at $20 a share last month after increasing both the size of its offering andits target price during the marketing process leading up to the final sale – a remarkable accomplishment. Even then, Fitbit couldn’t satisfy demand for shares, which promptly soared 48% to trade at $29.68. As of this week, they are trading at about $47.

Part of what made that Fitbit transaction work so well was the fact that the company had become a household name by the time it attempted to raise new capital from the general public. Legendary Fidelity investment manager Peter Lynch famously recommended that we should put our money into what we know: many investors have interpreted that as meaning we should buy stock in brand-name companies that we know and whose business models we understand.

That has been relatively straightforward in the broader stock market, when picking between one “seasoned” company and another. It’s less useful advice in a volatile market, and the increasingly active IPO climate of the kind that we encounter today, however. IPOs are a game that well-connected pros play, and individuals are at a disadvantage when trying to get a bit of the action.

The question now is whether a new model like that of Loyal3, a San Francisco investment brokerage, will help to break up the cozy relationships between the big investment banks and their most lucrative clients, the big institutions who pay hefty trading commissions – fees that dwarf those paid by the likes of Fitbit. Logically enough, those clients feel entitled to get the biggest chunks of the most attractive deals, meaning that there is less left over for the rest of us.

But if bankers have “friends and family” (read: their best clients) to whom they like to distribute shares in prize IPO deals, well, so do companies. That’s the thinking that lies behind Loyal3, founded in 2012 by Barry Schneider, a former golf company executive. Schneider’s team includes Bill Blais, a former investment banker with Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.

“We can help the company complete a skilled offering by making stock available to their network of employees, customers, fans and partners,” Schneider says.

He notes that studies have shown that investors who have a greater degree of engagement with the brand also tend to be more loyal investors, sticking around for longer after an IPO is completed than a big mutual fund manager might, for instance.

Loyal3 helped GoPro attract some 16,000 small investors; GoPro’s chief executive, Nick Woodman, described the decision to allocate some of the coveted IPO stock to its most rabid fans instead of the hedge funds and mutual funds as “our way of saying thanks” for the company’s success. Loyal3 also worked with Virgin America, helping it offer members of its gold and silver elite loyalty programs access to shares at the same time and on the same terms as those available to Wall Street’s best clients.

The trick, of course, is that simply because you’re loyal to a brand, you can’t assume that its stock is equally worthy of your loyalty. Not every great product or great brand qualifies – at least, it should continue to demonstrate that it’s earning that loyalty, each and every quarter or year.

For instance, Blue Buffalo Pet Products is planning to raise as much as $501m from its IPO with the assistance of Loyal3, along with JP Morgan and Citigroup.

My cats love Blue Buffalo’s turkey cat food. They’re fans, and so am I. But that doesn’t mean I’m ready to snap up stock in Blue Buffalo’s IPO. There would be a lot more that I’d want to know about its business – and its business risks.

Net sales grew 28% in 2014 over 2013. But can Blue Buffalo keep up that pace, and what might happen in the competitive pet food business to stall its advance?

How much will its valuation – the premium at which it is sold to the public – go up between now and the time it is priced?

All such points would factor into my decision.

Still, whether individual ideas are great ones for your 401k or for my investment portfolio, it’s fair to say that the IPO process, one of the banking world’s laggards, could do with a little disruption. Elsewhere in the financial world, new businesses have shaken up a lot of legacy businesses: peer-to-peer systems have transformed everything from lending to venture funding. New banking models are being tested.

But even the woes of the 2012 Facebook IPO haven’t led to any changes in the IPO process, much to the chagrin of market veterans like Bill Hambrecht, founder of a series of boutique San Francisco investment banks and a longtime and outspoken critic of the way the mainstream banks rig the game in their favor.

It’s a dysfunctional system,” he commented at the time of the Facebook snafu.

Perhaps another San Francisco startup, Loyal3, will finally profit from the latest wave of investor enthusiasm for IPOs to create some change in the system of bringing them to market.

Schneider says that companies find the model intriguing – “What CEO doesn’t want to say to his or her community, You matter so much that I am going to provide you access at the same price as Wall Street?” – and that mainstream Wall Street banks often feel that they have to include him in their pitches to those potential underwriting clients, if only to seem innovative.

None of them, says Schneider in an almost gleeful tone, want to be “the guy who doesn’t introduce us” to their client.

And each of those introductions, regardless of the merits of the individual transaction, is one more tiny nail in the coffin of Wall Street’s cozy little club – and one step closer to the democratization of finance.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Suzanne McGee, for theguardian.com on Thursday 16th July 2015 17.15 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

 

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