Wednesday, 14 July 2021 07:53

Retail investors guide to IPO's

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Every month, Mark Draper (GEM Capital) writes an article about investing for the Australian Financial Review.  

This  month he writes about how retail investors should think about IPO's (initial public offerings or floats).  This article appeared in the AFR during July 2021.


Every retail investor dreams about doubling their money on day one of a hot IPO (initial public offering).  But Myer, Dick Smith and Nuix demonstrate that not all IPO’s turn out to be profitable.  With the likelihood of a flood of IPO’s in the second half of the year, investors should dust off the IPO playbook to ensure they don’t end up owning the next Dick Smith.

Hugh Dive (Chief Investment Officer, Atlas Funds Management) believes that the most important question for an investor to ask is who is the vendor and why are they selling.  Historically investors tend to do well where the IPO is a spin-off from a large company exiting a line of business, or the vendors are using the proceeds to expand their business.  IPOs, where the owners are looking solely to exit the business entirely (such as in the 2009 Myer IPO), tend to see poor outcomes for investors.

Investors also need to understand whether the vendor will continue to own any shares post IPO and ‘have skin in the game’ and for how long.  While continued vendor ownership doesn’t guarantee success, it does result in some alignment of interests with new shareholders at least in the short term.

Vince Pezzullo (Deputy Head of Equities, Perpetual) firmly believes that any IPO candidate must fit in with the investor’s usual investment strategy.  Retail investors in the past have been guilty of chasing a quick trading profit via IPO’s, often deviating from the types of investments they would usually make.  

Matt Williams (Portfolio Manager, Airlie Funds Management) agrees and says that while it might sound simple, the IPO has to be a good business with good prospects.  Some ingredients to determine whether the IPO is a good business would include the level of recurring earnings, debt levels and whether the industry sector has a favourable outlook.

The difficulty facing retail investors wishing to participate in IPO’s is access to information.  IPO investors are confronted with the task of understanding a new company with limited and often misleading financial data often referred to as pro-forma accounting within a brief marketing period.  Some of the accounting tricks that IPO’s have used in the past include amortising expenses so costs are transferred from the profit and loss account to the balance sheet, writing down of inventory pre IPO to artificially boost profitability post IPO, and cutting regular maintenance expenditure to boost profit.  Investors would be wise to read the cash flow statements and balance sheet positions in the prospectus to look for red flags.

The prospectus is generally considered an unfriendly document to retail investors due to its length and complexity.  Williams says that before investing in an IPO it is critical investors do their homework so they know what they are buying.  This involves reading the prospectus, particularly the ‘bad stuff’ including the Key Risks section.  Usually in the key risks section there is information showing the sensitivities to profitability should certain conditions change such as interest rates, currency, input costs etc.  Williams believes this is critical in assisting the investor make a decision on what to do next after the IPO lists.

If an investor can get comfortable with the quality of the IPO on offer, Pezzullo then suggests looking at whether the price is attractive.  Assessing the IPO price compared to other listed companies in the IPO’s peer group would be a useful measure of this.

Dive says there is a fundamental informational imbalance between the seller and the buyer of the IPO.  The seller knows the business intimately and is choosing the time to sell their stake in the business to be IPO’d at the time when conditions are most favourable to the seller.

Dive advises to ignore the hype around recent IPO success stories and look at every IPO from the initial position that the seller is trying to trick you into buying something that they are selling and then slowly work backwards towards a position of trust.

Finally, Warren Buffett says about IPO’s "It's almost a mathematical impossibility to imagine that, out of the thousands of things for sale on a given day, the most attractively priced is the one being sold by a knowledgeable seller to a less-knowledgeable buyer."  When it comes to IPO’s - Buyer beware!


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