Initial Public Offerings Draw Strong Investor Attention

Article excerpt

Little companies are "going public" at a record rate, and individual investors are increasingly being called on to buy their newly issued stock. Individuals are biting up these speculative issues, too, helping to create a virtual feeding frenzy in the so-called IPO, or initial public offering, market.

"It has taken four or five years for the individual to thaw out from his IPO chill," said Lloyd Greif, founder of Greif Co., a Los Angeles-based investment house. "But now they're responding to opportunity knocking on the door."

Indeed, initial public offerings have taken off. About $39.4 billion in these shares were sold in 1992 compared with $25.1 billion in all of 1991 and $10.2 billion the year before, according to Securities Data Co. The market dried out in 1989 and 1990 because of sorry stock performance, Greif added.

No one knows exactly how much of today's record total has gone into individual _ vs. institutional _ hands, but it's generally accepted that individual investors are a big part of the current boom, said Hartley T. Bernstein, partner at the New York law firm of Brandeis, Bernstein Wasserman.

And now that the value of small company shares is soaring, the initial public offering market is being pushed to even greater heights. There are 733 companies set to go public within the next few months, vs. 587 in all of 1992, Greif noted. Demand for some shares is five to 15 times the supply, he added.

When Snapple, a maker of popular flavored teas, went public earlier this year, for example, the offering was so hot that the company's share price soared to more than $33 from $20 in just a matter of hours.

Yet, investing in initial offerings can pose substantial risks.

Although some companies that sell their shares to the public for the first time have long track records, many others are fledgling firms with little business history. That makes it more difficult to predict whether they will prosper or falter. More speculative issues come to market in times like these because sales are brisk for virtually everything. In less heated times, many speculative companies would not be able to find buyers for their shares.

Once public, some of new companies are thinly traded, which means it could be tough to buy or sell their shares. That can cause you to pay too much going in and get too little going out.

And, finally, the market for newly public companies is exceptionally volatile and often fueled by hype. Once the hype evaporates it is not unusual for the stock price to fizzle, too _ sometimes for good reason.

The classic horror story is ZZZZ Best, which went public in 1986 for $4 a share. The carpet cleaning company's stock price soared to more than $18, while the company's teen-age founder toured the talk-show circuit and wrote a book about making it big in America. …