Two companies with quirky names, Ubiquiti Networks and Zeltiq Aesthetics, made their public debuts earlier this month with listings on the Nasdaq Stock Market. Each company's stock went up modestly on the first day of trading.
Ubiquiti pocketed $106 million for the day, and Zeltiq made $91 million. They were the most successful stock debuts of the past two months. Then again, they were the only stock debuts of the past two months.
The market for initial public offerings, or IPOs, is suffering through a drought of Texas proportions. Companies thinking of going public are deciding it's just too risky.
The stock market lost nearly 20 percent of its value in a month this past summer. Swings of 200 points for the Dow Jones industrial average continue to be commonplace. Getting the timing wrong for a coming-out party can mean missing out on millions of dollars.
A dried-up IPO market matters because stock debuts aren't just a chance for tech whizzes to become overnight billionaires and ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange. Companies use the cash they raise to grow — and that means hiring people.
And at a time when 14 million Americans are looking for work and the unemployment rate has been stuck near 9 percent for two years, the last thing the economy needs is for one engine of hiring to stall.
There are 215 companies waiting to go public. They've filed the necessary paperwork and lined up bankers, and are just holding out for the right time to unleash their stock. The waiting list is the longest since 2001, according to Renaissance Capital, an investment advice firm.
LogMeIn, a Massachusetts software company, went public in July 2009, raised $107 million and harnessed the cash to hire people. Within two years, its work force grew by a third, to 432 people. Without the IPO, the company might have added only 10 percent to its work force, says Jim Kelliher, the chief financial officer.
"It's cash to expand your business," he says.
That's how it usually works. For upstart companies, IPOs and hiring sprees go hand in hand:
— LinkedIn, the online social network for professionals, went public in May to fanfare, raising $353 million. In the three months through the end of June, it expanded its staff by 17 percent.
— Pandora, which streams music online, debuted in June. It bulked up the product development staff by 74 percent and sales and marketing by 125 percent. Pandora employed about 300 people at the end of January and now has more than 400.
— ReachLocal, an online marketing company, went public in May 2010. From the month before its coming-out party through the end of the year, its work force grew 30 percent, to 1,381.
In good times, an open door for stock market debuts can start a snowball of benefits, says Steven Kaplan, a professor of finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
Venture capital firms bankroll small upstarts, like Amazon and Google, years before they go public. A successful IPO enriches the venture capital backers. They then have an easier time raising money from new investors to plow into companies that might be the next Amazon or Google.
"There's a feedback effect," Kaplan says.
For profitable businesses, an IPO can also unlock the door to corporate debt markets, another source of cash that helps a company grow.
Entrepreneurs and investors describe going public as a crucial hurdle for fast-growing companies, one that divides the Amazons and Googles of the world from the graveyard of startups.
Those that clear the hurdle can transform themselves from obscure businesses to household names. A recent study by the National Venture Capital Association, a trade group, and IHS Global Insight, an economic forecasting firm, examined companies that went public from 1970 to 2010 and had been backed by venture capital before their IPO.
It found that 92 percent of the people hired by those companies over the four decades came on after the IPO.
A separate report by Nasdaq OMX, which owns the Nasdaq Stock Market, examined companies that went public from 2001 to 2009 and found that they increased their collective work force by 70 percent. The number of employed people in the United States in that time rose 1.3 percent.
Of course, the economy has bigger problems than a barren IPO market. Even if all the promising upstarts in line for an IPO went public, it might not put a dent in the 9.1 percent unemployment rate.
And it's difficult to know exactly what companies will do with the money. Most are vague in regulatory paperwork about their next steps. And would-be public companies are barred from talking about their plans until a month after their debut.
Before this past summer, fast-growing companies like LinkedIn and Pandora had been jumping into the stock market at a brisk pace. The companies got a good initial price, and their stock generally did well after that. LinkedIn went public May 19, and its stock more than doubled on its first day.
For a while, it appeared that 2011 would be the best year for IPOs since the Internet bubble popped in 2000. Investors were ready for Internet companies like Zynga and Facebook to go public.
They're still waiting. The Dow lost more than 2,000 points from late July through mid-August. And while the market has rallied since early October, the past two months have been a series of up and down lurches.
As dry as it's been, the drought for IPOs is still not as bad as during the financial crisis. Just one company, Grand Canyon Education, managed to go public in six months, August 2008 to February 2009.
Faced with a long wait and a volatile stock market, some companies have decided to give up. At least 15 private companies have withdrawn their IPO paperwork from the Securities and Exchange Commission in the past two months.
Others are getting snapped up by larger corporations. Of the five companies that pulled their IPOs in September, three were acquired. Hitachi, Nestle and private equity firms all picked up companies that gave up their dream of going public.
What will it take to end the drought? Calmer markets. In recent weeks, moves by European officials to end the region's debt crisis have lifted stocks, but the market remains volatile.
In the meantime, companies are warily eyeing the calendar. Groupon, the daily-deal email service, plans to go public in early November. It was valued as high as $25 billion in June, but it now expects less than half that.
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