2016 turned out to be a terrible year for IPOs, both in terms of number of deals and aggregate proceeds.
According to Renaissance Capital’s U.S. IPO Market 2016 Annual Review, only 105 companies went public on U.S. exchanges in 2016, raising only $19 billion in aggregate proceeds. The deal count of 105 IPOs was down 38% from 2015 and the lowest level since 2009. The $19 billion in aggregate proceeds was down 37% from 2015 and the lowest level since 2003. In fact, if you remove the financial recession years of 2008 and 2009, the 105 IPOs in 2016 were also the lowest since 2003. And the drop in deal activity was indiscriminate; both VC- and PE-backed IPOs were at their lowest levels by deal count and proceeds raised since 2009.
The temptation would be to blame the weak IPO market on political uncertainty, with Brexit and the U.S. election being the biggest culprits. But then how to explain the broader U.S. capital markets, which were hot in 2016. The Dow Jones Industrial Average hovered around 20,000 at year end, and the S&P 500 Index was up 9.5% for the year. One would expect that the market for IPOs would be pretty strong, as bullish markets normally encourage companies to go public. To be fair, much of the market gains took place in the latter half of the fourth quarter. But market weakness doesn’t explain the two-year drought in IPOs for technology companies, considered the mainstay of the IPO market.
Another common theory is that over-regulation, particularly Sarbanes Oxley, has made it much more expensive to go and remain public, thus discouraging many growth companies from doing so. The 2012 JOBS Act tried to remedy this by creating an IPO on-ramp for emerging growth companies, allowing for confidential registration statement filings with the SEC, “testing-the-waters” and scaled disclosure. The immediate results were encouraging: a dramatic increase in IPO deals and aggregate proceeds in 2014. Yet IPOs plummeted in 2015 and even further in 2016.
Renaissance Capital’s report points the finger squarely at the public-private valuation disconnect. The tech startup space in 2015 was a mystifying series of mega rounds, sky-high valuations, unicorns and bubble fears. But another trend has been IPOs being priced below the company’s most recent private funding round. In its pre-IPO round, Square Inc. was valued at approximately $6 billion, but IPO’d at just over half that valuation and then plunged further post-IPO. Etsy Inc. and Box Inc. both reported $5 billion plus private valuations, only to plunge in the days leading up to their IPOs. Many, including Benchmark Capital’s Bill Gurley, have blamed the late-stage bidding frenzy on institutional public investors such as mutual funds rushing into late-stage private investing. Another major contributing factor in the escalation of late stage valuations is the trend toward generous downside protections being given to investors in exchange for lofty valuations, such as IPO ratchets and M&A senior participating liquidation preferences. The former is simply antidilution protection that entitles the investor to receive extra shares on conversion in the IPO if the IPO price is below either the price paid by the late-stage investor or some premium above that price. The latter means that, in an acquisition, the investor gets first dollars out ahead of earlier series of preferred and then participates with the common pro rata on an as converted basis.
Renaissance maintains that VC-backed tech companies with lofty late round private valuations chose in 2016 to avoid inevitably lower public-market valuations and had the luxury of remaining private due to ample available cash in the private markets. Mergers and acquisitions offered alternate pathways for other tech companies, such as TransFirst, BlueCoat and Optiv, all of which had previously filed S-1s for IPOs.
Although the private-public valuation disconnect was a major impediment to IPOs in 2015 and 2016, Renaissance believes this phenomenon is close to correcting itself and is optimistic about 2017. Many growth companies have seen their valuations flat or down in new funding rounds to levels that will be more palatable to public investors. Also, the election results will likely bring a dramatic change in fiscal, regulatory, energy and healthcare policies, all of which should be stimulative to equity markets, new company formation and, ultimately, IPOs.
Another reason for tech IPO optimism for 2017 is Snap, Inc.’s highly anticipated IPO in the first half of 2017. It filed confidentially under the JOBS Act, and has begun testing the waters with investors. The Snap IPO is rumored to raise $4 billion at a valuation of over $25 billion. Another one is Spotify, which raised $1 billion in convertible debt in March 2016 which signals a likely imminent IPO. These two IPOs might raise more capital than all VC-backed tech IPOs in the last two years combined.