A friend who’s a major money manager—call him Oscar—recently related a story about just how intoxicating a big-pop IPO can be. On a flight from LA to New York a few years ago, Oscar was seated across the aisle from the CFO of a California company that had just gone public. “It was fantastic!” crowed the executive, his volume rising as he downed one gin and tonic after another. “Our stock jumped 30% the first day! That’s tens of millions of dollars!” As they deplaned, Oscar remarked to the stumbling CFO, “Wouldn’t your company be worth a lot more if you’d put those tens of millions in your treasury, instead of giving that money away?” The CFO suddenly turned reflective, as if he’d never heard of that idea—though it’s unlikely the facts stopped his binge of self-congratulation for long.
It now appears that BIG POP is working its intoxicating spell on Alibaba—soon to trade under the ticker. The road show for its forthcoming IPO is now in full swing, and its shares are reportedly proving a huge hit with institutional investors. Big fund managers, anticipating an overnight windfall, are reportedly requesting far more shares for their portfolios than Alibaba is selling at a price somewhere between $60 and $66 a share—the exact number will be determined on September 18, on the eve of its eagerly awaited debut.
What appears to be growing excess demand for Alibaba stock is likely to cause what it always causes: a steep rise in the share price in the first days of trading. That pop is one of Wall Street’s prized events. The term evokes images of exploding champagne corks, a sign of flush times in the markets—and if you believe what Wall Street is selling, the hallmark of a successful IPO.
In reality, a big first-day pop means that the underwriters have sold the shares too cheaply, at far below the price those institutional buyers were really willing to pay. The major beneficiaries are the famous Wall Street names and their commission-paying clients; the loser is the company that raises far less cash than if its shares had sold at market prices. What’s remarkable is that so many great companies voluntarily leave so many billions “on the table.” And it’s amazing how many supposedly sophisticated entrepreneurs are conned by the prospect. Especially since Wall Street has only the weakest rationale for selling it: Pin-striped bankers promise that those first-day price surges will make for great “publicity” for the newbie companies, and attract a coterie of loyal investors.
In reality, the only coterie it’s likely to attract is the crowd of celebrating bankers that night at Peter Luger’s.
Successful newly public companies don’t always start with a pop. Facebook’s shares famously dropped in early trading, meaning it raised more cash than it deserved at its 2012 debut. And it’s not certain that Alibaba’s shares will pop at all, once all is said and done. But to hear the hype surrounding what is likely to be the biggest IPO in tech history, it sure likes like Wall Streeters expect it to. Should that be the case, the amount of money Alibaba could forgo—and the size of the prize for Wall Street—are unprecedented.