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Wednesday 13 June 2012

Unfriend Those IPOs

Money Losing Ventures

The downward trajectory of Facebook’s price after its Initial Public Offering (IPO) wasn't a great shock.  Perhaps the bigger surprise is how many column inches have been spent analysing a story that can be summarized as “high price, low earnings, uncertain future”.  Sentiment is a powerful driver of stock prices, but only when there’s money around to back it up.

In fact IPO’s do seem to be generally subject to overpricing, which isn’t as obvious a trend as you might expect, given that owners tend to retain large stakes and to look for ways of retaining control of their precious creations.  For most retail investors, though, IPO’s are probably best avoided on principle.  The principle being not losing money.

Winner's Curses

As we saw in Are IPO’s Bitter Lemons?, the research has tended to suggest that IPO’s are, if anything, underpriced.  There are a bunch of reasons for this, none of them particularly positive.  One of the more likely causes of a first day trading bounce is the winner’s curse, where insufficiently knowledgeable punters buy the newly minted stock: in this analysis the stock isn’t undervalued, but the purchasers are foolish.

The alternative explanation is that insiders are using their private information to exploit IPO pricing to their own advantage.  At face value, if IPO’s are actually underpriced at issue this doesn’t seem likely but in Are IPO’s Really Underpriced? Amiyatosh Purnanandam and Bhaskaran Swaminathan have argued that this is an illusion:
“While IPOs have been consistently underpriced by 10% or more over the past two decades, we find that in a sample of more than 2,000 IPOs from 1980 to 1997, the median IPO is significantly overvalued at the offer price relative to value metrics based on industry peer price multiples. This overvaluation ranges from 14% to 50% depending on the peer matching criteria.”
The suggestion here is that although money is being left on the table based on the post-IPO prices achieved, it’s still the case that the initial price generally overvalues firms.  The likely behavioral explanation is that the initial price spike is driven by optimists and subsequent performance, usually downward, by earnings. In this scenario institutional investors can reap the value of any private information about the real valuation of these stocks by selling into the post-IPO market.

Private Information / Public Foolishness

In The Role of Institutional Investors in Initial Public Offerings the researchers largely confirm the idea that institutions have private information which they’re able to exploit to maximise their returns:
“We found that institutions sell 70.2% of their IPO allocations in the first year, fully realize the “money left on the table,” and do not dissipate these profits in post-IPO trading … Overall, our results suggest that institutional investors possess significant private information about IPOs, play an important supportive role in the IPO aftermarket, and receive considerable compensation for their participation in IPOs.”
While this may all seem like more evidence that small private investors face hopelessly overwhelming odds in their attempts to trade against institutions there’s a strong argument that this issue is already in the public domain, and that traders who are foolish enough to fall victim to such problems have only themselves to blame.  The research suggesting that we’re all too eager to jump on the next high-profile bandwagon is all too persuasive: 
“We find that individual investors display attention-based buying behavior. They are net buyers on high volume days, net buyers following both extremely negative and extremely positive one-day returns, and net buyers when stocks are in the news. Attention-based buying is similar for large capitalization stocks and for small stocks. The institutional investors in our sample—especially the value strategy investors—do not display attention-based buying”.

Attentional Deficits 

The idea is that we tend to select stocks that attract our attention, and given that there are literally thousands to choose from, we’re more likely to alight on some well known, highly publicised firm than some dull and dowdy corporation quietly getting on with its business.  High profile IPO’s are, of course, exactly the kind of thing that attracts unwarranted attention.

This would imply that investors who end up losing as a result of fooling about with IPO’s shouldn’t be blaming institutional insider information but should be looking seriously at their own behavioral flaws and, in particular, how they go about stock selection.  This is exactly the point made by Laura Casares Field and Michelle Lowry in Institutional versus Individual Investment in IPOs: The Importance of Firm Fundamentals

They start by pointing out that many IPO’s are intrinsically risky, as they’re young companies with little track record.  The variations in three year returns after IPO range from +1000% for the best performing hundred firms to -99% for the worst performing hundred.  No surprise there, as what can happen, will happen, but associated with this vast gulf in performance is institutional investment: the best performers have the highest institutional involvement and the worst have the lowest.

Behavioral Traps

At face value this appears to be de-facto evidence that institutions do indeed have privileged knowledge about IPO firms, but the researchers go further and point out that Barber and Odean’s evidence about attention-based buying suggests that professional investors are far less likely to be caught out by this type of simple behavioral trap.  They posit that the difference in institutional involvement between successful and unsuccessful new corporations is simply caused by professional investors actually bothering to do some proper research:
“We find no evidence to suggest that institutions’ superior performance results from monitoring activities. Moreover, our results provide little support for the idea that private information contributes substantially to institutions’ ability to identify and avoid the worst-performing firms. Rather, our analysis suggests that the majority of the advantage institutions possess reflects their attention to publicly available information. Institutions are more likely to invest in the types of firms that tend to perform better, and they earn higher returns as a result. Individuals have access to the same information, but they appear to either disregard or misinterpret its relevance for firm value.”
Basically institutions tend to avoid the worst performing stocks and reap the benefits.  They’re less likely to invest on the basis of a good story and more likely to focus on whether or not the firm is well run and has decent market opportunities.  All of which suggests that heavy institutional investment in infant corporations is a signal that the firms may be worth some decent analysis.  Stocks with no institutional support should be avoided.


Overall, as most seasoned private investors know, the IPO market is fraught with problems.  Whether these are caused by the use of institutional inside information or private investor mass behavioral mania is pretty much irrelevant; the net effect is that it’s difficult to figure out the intrinsic value of such corporations in the wake of an IPO and most private investors should steer well clear until the situation has stabilized.

Obviously hugely visible flotations such as Facebook will attract a lot of investor attention.  Facebook is a phenomena, and may well be able to monetize itself to justify the valuations being placed upon it.  However, in the meantime, more rational investors will wait to see evidence that it can succeed and will take the performance of the share price in the wake of its IPO as more evidence that there’s only one action to take with the unruly connection that is the new issue market: unfriend it.

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