One of the remarkable features of the bull market over the past year has been frenzied activity in initial public offerings (IPOs). Around the world, investors have shown an extraordinary interest in new stock issues and been willing to pay high prices for a piece of the action.

An IPO occurs when a private company raises capital by issuing shares to institutional and retail investors. IPOs have been setting records for both the number of companies going public and the amount of money being raised. The boom has gathered steam as investors have become increasingly enamoured of tech stocks and upbeat about the prospects for post-pandemic economic growth.

Globally, IPOs raised a record US$140.3 billion this year to May 10 through a total of 670 offerings, another record.

Most of those issues were in the U.S., which has by far the largest stock market in the world with over 55% of global equity value. The U.S. IPO market is coming off an unprecedented year in 2020 when 494 issues raised US$174 billion, a 150% increase over 2019. In the first quarter of this year, IPOs were even hotter with 365 issues, raising US$129 billion.

In Canada, the results were more mixed. The 77 IPOs in 2020 were fewer than in 2019, but the $5.6 billion raised was an increase of 116% over 2019. In the first quarter of this year, there were 32 IPOs worth $3.2 billion.

Investors have been willing to pay extraordinary prices for IPOs, especially tech issues. Between 2002 and 2019, the median tech IPO price-to-sales ratio never went above 12 in a calendar year, according to IPO expert Jay Ritter. In 2020 the ratio was 23, by far the highest since the dot-com era. To the end of April this year, it was 20.

The excitement surrounding new stock market entrants is quite a contrast from the tone just a few years ago. Back then, media attention was focused on the low number of IPOs and the shrinking size of the stock market.

A 2017 Wall Street Journal article titled Where Have All the Public Companies Gone? noted that the number of listings on U.S. exchanges had dropped to just 3,617, half the number there were in 1996. IPOs had fallen to 128 from 845 in 1996.

Plentiful money from private equity and venture capital investors meant companies could fund their growth without going public and taking on all the accompanying regulations, public scrutiny, and investor activism and lawsuits. Merger and acquisition activity also contributed to the disappearance of existing public companies.

As the Journal article noted, what was good for the private equity and venture capital investors was bad for retail investors who depend on public equity markets. The shrinking number of public companies meant passive investors who purchase whole markets through index funds were getting less diversification for their money.

From this point of view, the current IPO boom is positive news. However, there is also danger for small investors in the IPO frenzy as we discussed in a recent episode of our Capital Topics podcast.

Attracted by all the hoopla, many small investors are being drawn into buying individual IPO issues. Besides the well-known perils of buying individual stocks, IPOs tend to underperform the stock market following their first day on the market, according to research by Ritter, a professor at the Warrington College of Business at the University of Florida, who is known as Mr. IPO.

In an interview on Rational Reminder podcast hosted by our PWL colleagues Benjamin Felix and Cameron Passmore, Ritter said IPOs underperform the market on average over one-year and three-year periods, following the close of their first day of trading. (He noted it’s the smallest companies that tend to underperform the market. Larger companies, on average, neither underperform nor outperform.)

What’s more, brokerage firms often ensure large investors get IPO shares at the offering price. Small investors are left to purchase stock at higher prices on the secondary market (although online platforms are making it easier for individual investors to buy IPO shares). Additionally, brokers are sometimes paid bonuses to sell the IPO shares of lower quality companies to clients.

There’s been a lot of excitement and lots of headlines about IPOs over the last year. The good news for passive investors is IPOs are quickly included in indexes and thus you get to own them without taking the risks involved in buying individual stocks.