Facebook Flop Won’t Scare Off Growth-Company Listings

The poor post-IPO performance of Facebook shares is causing companies to delay pricing, but on its own won’t shut down new listings, say experts.

More than 10 companies have postponed their public listings in the United States in the past two weeks. For all of May, only 11 initial public offerings actually priced, compared with 20 last year. Globally, 20 IPOs priced last month, but that was down from 43 a year ago, according to data from Renaissance Capital.

The Facebook debacle is having a chilling effect no question, especially on social media and mobile,” says Eric A. Newsom, a partner at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. “There is no getting around the fact that the 800 pound gorilla in social had these issues [with its IPO].”

But experts don’t see drastic, long-term effects from Facebook’s miscue — at least when it is isolated from other factors spoiling the plans of growth companies waiting to list. “Facebook might have a short-term corrective effect on pricing and slow the IPO pipeline down for sure, but it’s by no means a shut-off valve,” Newsom says.

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The potentially bigger problems are the spike in equity-market volatility this week and the negative turn stock indices took for the year on Friday.

Pulling an IPO is “a significant decision, but not uncommon,” Newsom says. He points out that online travel-booking firm Kayak has been discussing going public for the past 18 months, and the recent decision to push back its listing does not mean the company is “shelving its plans to go public.”

But “the stats are a bit worrisome,” says Michelle Lowry, associate professor of finance at Pennsylvania State University’s Smeal College of Business. In any market, 20% of companies withdraw their IPO, she says, and only about 9% ever actually become publicly listed.

The 91% of companies that typically withdraw an IPO and don’t come back to the public markets can face some tough choices. The situation is particularly problematic for companies backed by venture capitalists, who need a return on their money within a certain time horizon. Many venture-capital-backed companies that withdraw get acquired. The worst-case scenario is that the company joins the “living dead,” says Lowry. “The company continues to operate, but the venture-capital firm writes off the investment.”

But Newsom doesn’t see huge ripple effects from Facebook’s experience for companies trying to raise early-stage venture capital. “At the end of the day, Facebook’s venture backers did just fine, as did Groupon’s,” he says. The greater effect will be on the valuations of companies that are raising large amounts of late-stage private money in preparation for an IPO, says Newsom.

Facebook will bring investors and bankers back to reality regarding the crazy valuations placed on other social-media firms like Instagram and Pinterest, Newsom says. Trading in shares on secondary markets has caused a “soft inflation” of pre-IPO prices, he says, and “that’s justified bankers and companies pumping up valuations.” But bankers are likely to be more conservative with IPO pricing going forward, which is good for investors.

Significantly, all the blame for the current market dislocation cannot be laid at the door of Facebook and its underwriters. “[The IPO market] was not searingly hot to begin with,” says Newsom, pointing to withdrawn IPOs in clean-tech in the past year, an industry that was supposed to be in the midst of an investment boom. Many companies would have been postponing going public even absent the Facebook deal, adds Lowry.