Stock markets reached all-time highs in 2021, bringing huge value to the companies riding the wave, even when you allow for the dip in recent weeks. We are also in the midst of a boom year for flotations, with many boards taking advantage of investor enthusiasm for shares. Yet companies have been delisting from the stock market in even larger numbers, and, in fact, this trend has been going on for some time.
The number of listed companies worldwide peaked at 45,743 in 2014 but had slipped to 43,248 by 2019 according to the World Bank. The numbers in major markets such as the US, UK, France and Germany have all been trending down.
In 2020, there were 47 deals to take companies private worth a total of US$40 billion (£29 billion), which was well down from the 62 deals worth US$88 billion in 2019, though the numbers were considerably up in Asia. On the other hand, 2021 has been a huge year: going private is already beyond its previous peak from 2007, with a record number of transactions that has already surpassed US$800 billion.
Total listed companies worldwide
Some of these decisions to go private are being driven by aggressive buying by private equity groups such as Blackstone, KKR and Apollo. In the belief that there are corporate bargains in the wake of the pandemic and Brexit, these investment firms did US$113.5 billion worth of deals in the first half of 2021 alone. That’s more than double the previous six months and the strongest half year since the first half of 2007.
Yet the lure of private equity is not the only explanation for companies walking away from the stock market. So what’s going on, and are they doing the right thing?
The big turn-off
For one thing, there is enough money to be found elsewhere that companies don’t need to raise funds through a flotation. The world’s central banks have been increasing the money supply by slashing interest rates and “printing money” via quantitative easing (QE) since the financial crisis of 2007-09, but the latest round of QE in response to the pandemic has taken this to a whole new level. The current rate of money-supply expansion is faster than the growth of economies. With lending rates so low, all this money is chasing investments. A stock-market listing begins to seem tedious when you can just borrow money very cheaply instead.
The second attraction with being private is regulation. Listed companies have become tightly regulated on the back of corporate-governance disasters such as WorldCom, Enron, Galleon Group and more recently Wirecard. These constraints have motivated many a company to skip public scrutiny by choosing to be private instead.
Another problem with public markets is how illogical they have become….