If the start of the 2010 IPO season is any indication of what's to come, companies that want to go public should brace for nervous investors, unwilling to pay top dollar in a crowded field — and in an uncertain market.
Of the six companies scheduled to have initial public offerings on Friday, just one, life insurer Symetra Financial Corp., could be considered a success. And that was thanks, in large part, to a name Americans recognize — Warren Buffett — being involved. The Omaha investor's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. has a large stake in the Bellevue, Wash. company, holding about 20 percent of its shares after the IPO.
The company sold the stock to investors near the low end of an expected range — traditionally a sign of weak demand. But Symetra's stock jumped 75 cents, or 6.3 percent, to close Friday at $12.75, after trading as high as $13.50 earlier in the day.
The other companies expected to start trading Friday either failed to make it to market, or sank upon arrival. Three shelved their IPOs until next week.
The culprit? To a large extent, concern that the broader markets are pulling back after finishing on a high note in 2009. This week, the Dow Jones industrial average declined for three straight days. It, and the Standard & Poor's 500 index, are down more than 2 percent for the year.
Potential IPO investors are worried about their portfolios and aren't going to spend money on a company they don't recognize in a shaky environment for stocks, said David Menlow, who runs IPOfinancial, which analyzes initial public offerings.
"It's not a must-do transaction for investors now," Menlow said.
Meanwhile, there are a lot companies looking to raise money through IPOs. Seven offerings are expected next week, and three the following week, according to data from Renaissance Capital. More than two-thirds of investment bank executives expect IPO activity to grow this year, according to a survey earlier this month by BDO Seidman, an accounting firm and consultancy.
With a tentative outlook for the broader market and credit still somewhat constrained, investors have a lot of power to determine IPO prices. Offering underwriters are not going to want to go against the tide of dropping shares, especially since buyers are ruling the market right now, said Renaissance Capital's Nick Einhorn.
"IPOs have come back to some extent, but not with the kind of exuberance there was earlier in the decade," Einhorn said.
To lure picky investors in a volatile stock market, underwriters may have to lower offering prices, Menlow said. There was some evidence of that this week with Alpharetta, Ga.'s Cellu Tissue Holdings Inc. pricing its 8.3 million shares about 20 percent below expectations at $13 each. Its shares slumped $1.10, or 8.5 percent, to close at $11.90, in their IPO debut.
Some companies, like real estate investment trust Chesapeake Lodging Trust, may have to reduce the size of their offerings to match demand. Fairfield, N. J. Chesapeake, formed in June 2009 to buy upscale hotels, tabled a $250 million offering in December due to poor market conditions. It pushed its IPO through this week, but raised just $150 million. In its debut Friday, Chesapeake's stock dropped $1, or 5 percent, to close at $19.
And, as in the case of several companies this week, investors may continue to see companies decide to delay their offerings until conditions improve. Another newly created REIT, San Francisco's Terreno Realty, cut the number of shares it is offering by a third and postponed its IPO until next week.
Two offerings of less than $100 million each from Chinese companies were also postponed.
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