The public/private company dichotomy has been a perennial discussion topic. (See, e.g., this PubCo post, this PubCo post, this PubCo post, this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) A statistic frequently tossed around is that there are about half as many public companies today as there were in 1996, and those that are around today are older and larger. And while the IPO market was in a bit of funk last year, the private markets have been viewed as consistently vibrant, with more capital raised in the private markets than in the public. But the question of why and how to address the decline in the number of public companies has been a point of contention: is excessive regulation of public companies a deterrent to going public or has deregulation of the private markets juiced their appeal, but sacrificed investor protection in the bargain? At the end of January, we heard from SEC Commissioner Caroline Crenshaw addressing the question of whether the securities laws governing private capital raises might be too lax. Now, SEC Commissioner Mark Uyeda is speaking his mind on the topic, presenting remarks at the at the “Going Public in the 2020s” conference at Columbia Law School.
SPACs have certainly presented a well-lighted pathway for hundreds of companies to reach the public markets this past year or so. In testimony before a House subcommittee in May, SEC Chair Gary Gensler observed that we are “witnessing an unprecedented surge” in SPACs: so far in 2021, the SEC has received 700 S-1 SPAC filings, and 300 of these “blank-check IPOs” have been completed so far this year, compared to just 13 in all of 2016. Most recently, SPACs have been the target of extensive criticism, both from the SEC and outside commentators. However, in this DealBook column in the NYT, In Defense of SPACs, the Deal Professor suggests that the animus underlying much of this criticism is misguided; these “complex takeover vehicles serve an important purpose that’s worth protecting,” he contends. What is that purpose? As has long been lamented, the lane for smaller, earlier-stage companies to go public has substantially narrowed over a number of years. SPACs, he contends, have not just offered an alternative pathway to public company status—they have “single-handedly revived” the IPO market for these smaller, younger—and yes, sometimes riskier—companies to go public.
The Council of Institutional Investors has announced that it has filed petitions with the NYSE and Nasdaq requesting that each exchange amend its listing standards to address the issue of multi-class capital structures (i.e., share structures that have unequal voting rights for different classes of common stock). As requested by the petition, the amendment would require that, going forward, companies seeking to list with multi-class share structures include provisions in their governing documents that would sunset the unequal voting at seven years following an IPO and return the structure to “one-share, one-vote” structures, “subject to extension by additional terms of no more than seven years each, by vote of a majority of outstanding shares of each share class, voting separately, on a one-share, one-vote basis.” According to CII, unequal voting rights impair the ability of shareholders “to hold executives and directors accountable.” But companies contend that these measures are being adopted for a valid reason: to protect the company from unwanted interventions by hedge-fund activists with short-term goals and perspectives. Accordingly, the debate has centered around whether these measures are a legitimate effort to protect companies from the pressures of short-termism exerted by hedge-fund activists and others or are a mechanism that causes shareholders to cede power without providing accountability. Of course, the answer depends on where you sit.
On the White House lawn before he boarded a helicopter for the Hamptons and his New Jersey golf club for the weekend, reporters had the opportunity to lob a few questions at the president. While most of the questions were about security clearances and the criminal trials of his former staff, a different topic suddenly emerged in connection with an early morning tweet about quarterly reporting. The president said that, in his discussions with leaders of the business community regarding ways to improve the business environment, Indra Nooyi, the outgoing CEO of Pepsico, had suggested that one way to help business would be to trim the periodic reporting requirements from quarterly to semiannually. The argument is that the change would not only save time and money, but would also help to deter “short-termism,” as companies would not need to focus on meeting analysts’ expectations on a quarterly basis at the expense of longer term thinking. (For more on short-termism, see, e.g., this PubCo post.) He agreed that “we are not thinking far enough out,” and had asked the SEC to look into it.
As you’ve surely read and heard, there’s been a tremendous amount of hand wringing, particularly at the agency and congressional levels, about the steep decline in the number of public companies and IPOs. For example, in congressional testimony in 2017, SEC Chair Jay Clayton expressed concern regarding the decline in the number of public companies, contending that it is Mr. and Ms. 401(k) who bear the cost of this trend because they now have “fewer opportunities…to invest directly in high quality companies.” (See this PubCo post.) The topic has also been taken up by various House committees, SEC advisory committees and SEC forums, as well as by securities and industry organizations. (See this PubCo post, this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) However, in this article, a Cambridge professor cries “nonsense”: the primary dangers to public company status, such as buyouts by private equity and a recent bias against conducting IPOs, do not pose “an existential threat to the American public company.” While there are certainly fewer public companies than in decades past, “the public company remains as crucial a feature of the American economy as it has ever been.”
In this report, Expanding the On-Ramp: Recommendations to Help More Companies Go and Stay Public, eight organizations—the American Securities Association, Biotechnology Innovation Organization, Equity Dealers of America, Nasdaq, National Venture Capital Association, Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, TechNet and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—joined forces to make recommendations about how to revitalize the IPO market and make public company status more appealing. Many of these recommendations have in the past been the subject of legislation or proposed rulemaking or have otherwise been floated in the ether but, nevertheless, have not advanced. Will the weight of these groups propel any of these recommendations forward?
The WSJ is reporting that “people familiar with the matter”—every reporter’s favorite source—say that the SEC is “weighing” expanding “test the waters” beyond just EGCs. You might recall that, in 2012, the JOBS Act allowed IPO candidates that were EGCs to take preliminary steps to determine the potential level of investor interest before committing to the expensive and time-consuming prospectus drafting and SEC review process. That flexibility, together with the new confidential IPO filing process—which allowed EGCs to start the SEC review process on a confidential basis so that sensitive information would not be disclosed if they ultimately determined not to move forward with the offering—was intended to promote and facilitate access to the public capital markets. Since that time, however, the IPO market has not exactly taken off like a rocket, and the hand-wringing over the lack of interest in going public has continued. In June 2017, Corp Fin extended the confidential filing process, permitting non-EGCs to submit confidential draft registration statement for IPOs and for most offerings made in the first year after going public. Will testing the waters be the next step?
Depending on your point of view, you may have experienced either heart palpitations or increased serotonin levels when you heard, back in July 2017, that SEC Commissioner Michael Piwowar had, in a speech before the Heritage Foundation, advised that the SEC was open to the idea of allowing companies contemplating IPOs to include mandatory shareholder arbitration provisions in corporate charters. As reported, Piwowar “encouraged” companies undertaking IPOs to “come to us to ask for relief to put in mandatory arbitration into their charters.” (See this PubCo post.) As discussed in this PubCo post, at the same time, in Senate testimony, SEC Chair Jay Clayton, asked by Senator Sherrod Brown about Piwowar’s comments, responded that, while he recognized the importance of the ability of shareholders to go to court, he would not “prejudge” the issue. According to some commentators at the time, to the extent that these views appeared to indicate a significant shift in SEC policy on mandatory arbitration, they could portend “the beginning of the end of securities fraud class actions.” Then, in January of this year, the rumors about mandatory arbitration resurfaced in a Bloomberg article, which cited “three people familiar with the matter” for the proposition that the SEC is “laying the groundwork” for this “possible policy shift.” But in recent Senate testimony, Clayton reportedly put the kibosh on these signals.
The Treasury Department recently issued a new report, A Financial System That Creates Economic Opportunities—Capital Markets, that, in its recommendations, not surprisingly, echoed in many respects the House’s Financial CHOICE Act of 2017. Having passed the House, the CHOICE Act has since foundered in the Senate (see this PubCo post). The recommendations in the Treasury report addressed approaches to improving the attractiveness of primarily the public markets, focusing in particular on ways to increase the number of public companies by limiting the regulatory burden. According to this Bloomberg article, SEC Chair Jay Clayton “called the report ‘a valuable framework for discussion’ among market participants ‘that will most certainly benefit the American people….We appreciate Treasury’s willingness to seek the SEC’s input during the drafting process, and we look forward to working alongside other financial regulators and Congress as we pursue our three part mission to protect investors, maintain fair, orderly and efficient markets, and facilitate capital formation.’”
Many have recently lamented the decline in the number of IPOs and public companies generally (from about 8,000 in 1996 to about 4,000 now, according to EY), and numerous reasons have been offered in explanation, from regulatory burden to hedge-fund activism. (See this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) In response, some companies are exploring different approaches to going public, leading to a recent resurgence in SPACs (see, e.g., this WSJ article), while others are flirting with the possibility of “direct listings,” which avoid the underwritten IPO process altogether (see, e.g., this article discussing the pending NYSE rule change to facilitate direct listings). At the same time, companies are seeking ways to address some of the perceived afflictions associated with being public companies—including the pressures of short-termism, the risks of activist attacks and potential loss of control of companies’ fundamental mission—through dual-class structures and other approaches. Changing dynamics are not, however, limited to companies. And one of the most interesting proposals designed to address these issues is being introduced on completely different turf—a novel concept for a stock exchange, the Long-Term Stock Exchange. According to the LTSE blog, “[w]hile other proposed solutions target the IPO process, the LTSE’s mission is to transform the public company experience by relieving the short-term pressures that plague today’s businesses and laying the foundation for a healthier public market ecosystem.”