Two loosely related things happened recently. SoulCycle, a cycling class business, pulled its initial public offering last week because of market conditions. And Uber’s CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said his company is on pace to go public next year. He must know something about the stock market, the direction of which is the primary influence on whether most IPOs work.
Even the most famous of IPOs, like Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ: FB), have benefited from a market that has driven relentlessly higher since the Dow Jones industrial average dropped below 7,000 in early 2009. It currently trades at over 25,000. Facebook stumbled out of the gate, with uneasy price swings right after its IPO. If the market had been in a major downdraft, Facebook’s IPO may have been a disaster. But the Dow index soared the year Facebook went public.
The market also has allowed companies that should never have been public to have IPOs. Among the best known of these are Blue Apron and GoPro. Their stocks have sputtered. In a poor market, they never would have traded at all.
The fate of IPOs in the near term may not rely on their business models as much as whether the market is receptive to new publicly traded companies at all. Large investors that have funded companies like Uber and AirBNB round after round count on the public markets to give them returns. These companies, and companies that have less attractive financials and brands, will face a desert if and when the market sells off sharply.
The next class of IPOs will include companies that are so strong, in the views of their investors and the portion of the public which reads the financial media, that their public corporation status is guaranteed. It is unimaginable that SpaceX and Palantir Technologies will not have IPOs to prove their valuations, which are in the tens of billions of dollars.
In a major stock market sell-off, the success of companies that want to go public won’t matter. A lot of companies won’t come public in the next few years. Some will be dogs, while others will be undone by the inevitable market sell-off.