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The Disadvantages of a Company Going Public or ‘Floating’

Following on from my post about the advantages of company going public, The following article discusses the disadvantages of a company going public through an IPO; as outlined in IPO and Equity Offerings by Ross Gedes.

The disadvantages brought about through the flotation of a company in an IPO are typically perceived differently by different companies with different focuses and requirements.

There are the costs involved that include both the direct costs, in time and money, of the flotation process as well as the opportunity costs of underpricing the offering and subsequently the costs of increased disclosure to public shareholders.

The disadvantages of private company going public are:

  1. Increased disclosure,
  2. Costs of IPOs,
  3. Potential loss of control,
  4. Separation of ownership and control,
  5. Perceptions of short-termism (Wall street),
  6. Meeting investor expectations.

Increased disclosure

When a company moves from private ownership to public, it vastly increases the number of people who have access to its financial records. This can be a huge shock to the existing owners, not just the reporting of the company’s results, but the disclosure of management salaries and perks that often piques the interest of newspaper editors on a slow day.

Companies are required by stock exchanges, securities commissions and regulators to disclose information on a regular basis so that investors and potential investors can make buy, sell or hold decisions. A much greater amount of information is required at the time of the IPO and is included in the offering prospectus.

Disclosure requirements vary by country. Those countries with the largest stock markets, relative to the economy, typically have the highest disclosure requirements (e.g. Australia, Canada, UK, USA).

The development of efficient capital markets in Central and Eastern Europe has been hindered partially by the reticence of corporate executives to disclose information about their firm’s operations and performance.

It’s not all bad though. Botosan (1997) has found that increased disclosure on the part of the company can reduce its cost of equity. By reducing its cost of equity, a company is able to invest in more projects, raise capital more cheaply, and enhance its valuation.

Costs of IPOs

Initial public offerings aren’t cheap. Investment bankers take commissions of between 2 and 7 per cent of the total amount raised; lawyers and accountants bill by the hour, and many hours are required. The ancillary costs, such as public relations, printing, corporate advertising and others can add several hundred thousand more dollars, euros or pounds.

In addition to the upfront costs of the IPO, there are the costs of maintaining a quote on the stock exchange (stock exchange fees, management time, more extensive audits and reporting, reconciliation of accounts to US GAAP if listed on a US exchange, etc.).

However, the direct costs of an IPO can pale beside the indirect cost of underpricing. Because no cash is coming directly out of the issuer’s pocket, underpricing can sometimes be ignored as a cost. It should not be. IPOs around the world are under priced compared with their short-term performance. On average, an IPO will close at a price that is 15 to 20 per cent above its issue price, although this varies by market and industry and over time. This means that selling shareholders and the company are leaving significant sums of money on the table when they go public.

The amount of money left on the table is calculated by subtracting the offer price from the first day closing price and multiplying by the number of shares offered. For example, many analysts believe Google left too much money on the table in its 2004 IPO.


Potential restrictions on management action

In many private companies, the managers are the owners. Therefore there are few restrictions on management action other than statutory and legal regulations and common sense. However, this is not a problem as the linkage of ownership and control should lead to little divergence of opinion about the appropriate course of action for the company.

In public companies, the managers are the agents of the shareholders – they should be acting on behalf of the shareholders and in the shareholders’ best interests. In order to ensure that they do, public companies have boards of directors who are meant to oversee management’s actions on behalf of shareholders. In some circumstances a strong board of directors may limit the actions of management.

Potential loss of control

Not all IPOs are for more than 50 per cent of the issuer’s voting shares, in fact, the average is around 30 per cent. So although control is not lost through the IPO, if the company requires further equity to fuel its growth, existing shareholders will suffer dilution. For the majority of companies, control will pass to public shareholders at some point in time.

‘This risk [passing of control] can be minimized by limiting the number of shares sold to the public, seeking to ensure a broad distribution of shares to the public, creating tiered classes of stock with differential voting rights, entering into voting agreements among pre-IPO shareholders, adopting supermajority provisions or staggering the terms of the directors. Creating a dual class voting structure can depress the price of the shares with less voting power. While some structures may prove more effective than others, there is no guarantee that a public company will not be threatened by a hostile acquiror.’ (Greenstein et al., 2000: 7)

Perceptions of short-termism

One of the most common complaints of corporate management is that Wall Street or the City are too ‘short-termist’. Short ‘termism’ outlines that investors and analysts focus exclusively on the current quarter/reporting period, without giving due consideration to the long-term impact of the company’s decisions. Shareholders generally judge management’s performance in terms of profits and stock price.

Significant pressure exists to increase profits each period and to meet analysts’ expectations and this pressure may cause management to emphasize near-term strategies instead of longer-term goals (Garner, Owen and Conway, 1994).

In order to meet investors’ quarterly or semi-annual earnings expectations, a company may be forced off the long-term strategy that was in place prior to the IPO. Managers may feel compelled to follow strategies that support the share price in the short term, rather than over a long time horizon.

I have watched several interviews with Warren Buffet where he has stated that he predominately wishes for long term investors in his company Berkshire Hathaway to avoid the Wall Street phenomenon of short termism. The corollary of this wish is a somewhat reduced daily liquidity of the stock, but if the company is returning above average dividends over time as a result of better decisions being made, this is less of an issue.

Dealing with institutional investors

Along with the above complaint about short-termism, many chief executives, often those heading a company with badly performing stock prices, complain that the stock market doesn’t understand entrepreneurs, and that entrepreneurial decision making and creativity are stifled by the men in blue pinstripe suits.

Additionally, dealing with shareholders, financial analysts and the press is time consuming. The CEO and CFO/Finance Director should expect to expend, on average, at least one day per month meeting with and discussing the company’s strategy, performance and operations. Those companies that do not establish good relationships with the financial community can find themselves without friends in times of need, such as when faced with a hostile take-over.

‘The performance expectations of Wall Street can only be described as brutal. Miss your earnings forecasts, especially in the first year after your IPO, and you could see a catastrophic decline in the price of your stock of 50 percent or better. Once a young management team has discredited itself with Wall Street, there may be no recovery.’ (American Lawyer Media, ‘The Survival Guide to IPOs’, p. 15)

Whilst many believe the advantages of company going public outweigh the disadvantages, every year dozens of companies voluntarily leave the stock market in what is called a ‘public to private transaction’. These transactions are typically management buy-outs and leveraged buy-outs of the public shareholders and come after extended periods of a depressed share price.