Initial public offering (IPO) or stock market launch is a type of public offering in which shares of a company are sold to institutional investors and usually also retail (individual) investors; an IPO is underwritten by one or more investment banks, who also arrange for the shares to be listed on one or more stock exchanges. Through this process, colloquially known as floating, or going public, a privately held company is transformed into a public company. Initial public offerings can be used: to raise new equity capital for the company concerned; to monetize the investments of private shareholders such as company founders or private equity investors; and to enable easy trading of existing holdings or future capital raising by becoming publicly traded enterprises.
After the IPO, shares traded freely in the open market are known as the free float. Stock exchanges stipulate a minimum free float both in absolute terms (the total value as determined by the share price multiplied by the number of shares sold to the public) and as a proportion of the total share capital (i.e., the number of shares sold to the public divided by the total shares outstanding). Although IPO offers many benefits, there are also significant costs involved, chiefly those associated with the process such as banking and legal fees, and the ongoing requirement to disclose important and sometimes sensitive information.
Details of the proposed offering are disclosed to potential purchasers in the form of a lengthy document known as a prospectus. Most companies undertake an IPO with the assistance of an investment bankingfirm acting in the capacity of an underwriter. Underwriters provide several services, including help with correctly assessing the value of shares (share price) and establishing a public market for shares (initial sale). Alternative methods such as the Dutch auction have also been explored and applied for several IPOs.
The earliest form of a company which issued public shares was the case of the publicani during the Roman Republic. Like modern joint-stock companies, the publicani were legal bodies independent of their members whose ownership was divided into shares, or partes. There is evidence that these shares were sold to public investors and traded in a type of over-the-counter market in the Forum, near the Temple of Castor and Pollux. The shares fluctuated in value, encouraging the activity of speculators, or quaestors. Mere evidence remains of the prices for which partes were sold, the nature of initial public offerings, or a description of stock market behavior. Publicani lost favor with the fall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire.
In the early modern period, the Dutch were financial innovators who helped lay the foundations of modern financial systems. The first modern IPO occurred in March 1602 when the Dutch East India Company offered shares of the company to the public in order to raise capital. The Dutch East India Company (VOC) became the first company in history to issue bonds and shares of stock to the general public. In other words, the VOC was officially the first publicly traded company, because it was the first company to be ever actually listed on an official stock exchange. While the Italian city-states produced the first transferable government bonds, they did not develop the other ingredient necessary to produce a fully fledged capital market: corporate shareholders. As Edward Stringham (2015) notes, “companies with transferable shares date back to classical Rome, but these were usually not enduring endeavors and no considerable secondary market existed (Neal, 1997, p. 61).”
Advantages and disadvantages
When a company lists its securities on a public exchange, the money paid by the investing public for the newly-issued shares goes directly to the company (primary offering) as well as to any early private investors who opt to sell all or a portion of their holdings (secondary offerings) as part of the larger IPO. An IPO, therefore, allows a company to tap into a wide pool of potential investors to provide itself with capital for future growth, repayment of debt, or working capital. A company selling common shares is never required to repay the capital to its public investors. Those investors must endure the unpredictable nature of the open market to price and trade their shares. After the IPO, when shares are traded freely in the open market, money passes between public investors. For early private investors who choose to sell shares as part of the IPO process, the IPO represents an opportunity to monetize their investment. After the IPO, once shares are traded in the open market, investors holding large blocks of shares can either sell those shares piecemeal in the open market or sell a large block of shares directly to the public, at a fixed price, through a secondary market offering. This type of offering is not dilutive since no new shares are being created.
Once a company is listed, it is able to issue additional common shares in a number of different ways, one of which is the follow-on offering. This method provides capital for various corporate purposes through the issuance of equity (see stock dilution) without incurring any debt. This ability to quickly raise potentially large amounts of capital from the marketplace is a key reason many companies seek to go public.
An IPO accords several benefits to the previously private company:
- Enlarging and diversifying equity base
- Enabling cheaper access to capital
- Increasing exposure, prestige, and public image
- Attracting and retaining better management and employees through liquid equity participation
- Facilitating acquisitions (potentially in return for shares of stock)
- Creating multiple financing opportunities: equity, convertible debt, cheaper bank loans, etc.
- Significant legal, accounting and marketing costs, many of which are ongoing
- Requirement to disclose financial and business information
- Meaningful time, effort and attention required of management
- Risk that required funding will not be raised
- Public dissemination of information which may be useful to competitors, suppliers and customers.
- Loss of control and stronger agency problems due to new shareholders
- Increased risk of litigation, including private securities class actions and shareholder derivative actions
IPO procedures are governed by different laws in different countries. In the United States, IPOs are regulated by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission under the Securities Act of 1933. In the United Kingdom, the UK Listing Authority reviews and approves prospectuses and operates the listing regime.
Planning is crucial to a successful IPO. One book suggests the following 7 advance planning steps:
- develop an impressive management and professional team
- grow the company’s business with an eye to the public marketplace
- obtain audited financial statements using IPO-accepted accounting principles
- clean up the company’s act
- establish antitakeover defences
- develop good corporate governance
- create insider bail-out opportunities and take advantage of IPO windows.
Retention of underwriters
IPOs generally involve one or more investment banks known as “underwriters“. The company offering its shares, called the “issuer”, enters into a contract with a lead underwriter to sell its shares to the public. The underwriter then approaches investors with offers to sell those shares.
A large IPO is usually underwritten by a “syndicate” of investment banks, the largest of which take the position of “lead underwriter”. Upon selling the shares, the underwriters retain a portion of the proceeds as their fee. This fee is called an underwriting spread. The spread is calculated as a discount from the price of the shares sold (called the gross spread). Components of an underwriting spread in an initial public offering (IPO) typically include the following (on a per share basis): Manager’s fee, Underwriting fee—earned by members of the syndicate, and the Concession—earned by the broker-dealer selling the shares. The Manager would be entitled to the entire underwriting spread. A member of the syndicate is entitled to the underwriting fee and the concession. A broker dealer who is not a member of the syndicate but sells shares would receive only the concession, while the member of the syndicate who provided the shares to that broker dealer would retain the underwriting fee. Usually, the managing/lead underwriter, also known as the bookrunner, typically the underwriter selling the largest proportions of the IPO, takes the highest portion of the gross spread, up to 8% in some cases.
Multinational IPOs may have many syndicates to deal with differing legal requirements in both the issuer’s domestic market and other regions. For example, an issuer based in the E.U. may be represented by the main selling syndicate in its domestic market, Europe, in addition to separate syndicates or selling groups for US/Canada and for Asia. Usually, the lead underwriter in the main selling group is also the lead bank in the other selling groups.
Because of the wide array of legal requirements and because it is an expensive process, IPOs also typically involve one or more law firms with major practices in securities law, such as the Magic Circle firms of London and the white shoe firms of New York City.
Financial historians Richard Sylla and Robert E. Wright have shown that before 1860 most early U.S. corporations sold shares in themselves directly to the public without the aid of intermediaries like investment banks. The direct public offering or DPO, as they term it, was not done by auction but rather at a share price set by the issuing corporation. In this sense, it is the same as the fixed price public offers that were the traditional IPO method in most non-US countries in the early 1990s. The DPO eliminated the agency problem associated with offerings intermediated by investment banks.