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Why J.P. Morgan IPO Access is a Huge Deal for Regular Investors

(AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Reporting by Ben Taylor, GRAPHIQ. 

In theory, an initial public offering (IPO) is a chance for ordinary investors to share in the success of a big, growing company. Got a hunch that Uber will continue its meteoric rise? Can’t wait to be an investor in Pinterest? Just hold tight for their respective IPOs, snap up some shares and watch as your share price climbs several points in a matter of months.

Unfortunately, that’s not how things usually go. Instead, the better returns tend to go to “institutional investors” (i.e. banks, mutual funds) and high-net-worth clients, while average investors wind up with only modest gains.

J.P. Morgan Chase wants to change that. On Oct. 21, the bank announced it would partner with online brokerage Motif Investing to give small-time investors the same opportunities afforded to wealthier and institutional ones.

Why have these investors had an advantage? The institutional and wealthy investors often get access to an “IPO offer price,” which is set the night before a company goes public. When the opening bell sounds the next day, the stock price routinely “pops” as a result of demand — sometimes leading to 90-day returns of 5 to 20 percent. Institutional investors enjoy the immediate increased value of their investment from the opening bell, while everyday investors have been left with a higher, opening-day price.

You can see the long-term advantage of this “pop” in the visualizations below, where investors with IPO price access outperformed investors without access in four out of five years, and most starkly of all in 2015.

Enter the J.P. Morgan Chase announcement. With a minimum investment of just $250, almost any armchair investor will get full access to the IPO price — so long as the IPO is underwritten by J.P. Morgan.

J.P. Morgan’s new policy follows in the footsteps of online trading platforms like Loyal 3, which have sought to make the IPO investing process more public. These companies have been responding to a particular investment roadblock from 1982, when Congress passed the Securities Act. The law included a special rule about who was allowed to bet on upcoming IPOs. Specifically, Rule 501 limited IPO price investment to individuals with a net worth of at least $1 million or annual income of at least $200,000. At the time, the rule was meant to prevent dumb investments from the uninformed masses.

Since then, however, many day-to-day investors have gained more tools for assessing companies and IPOs. In 1982, smart financial information was hard for everyday investors to come by; in 2015, consumers can find all sorts of financial resources, tips and tools online. Combine those changes with the explosion of “pop”-friendly tech IPOs, and the little guys have been clamoring to get back in on the action.

Still, J.P. Morgan’s move remains controversial. First, institutional investors — such as banks, mutual funds and pension funds — often comprise thousands of little guys, each of whom already benefits on a small scale when a hot new stock “pops” during an IPO. Regular investors might not have had access to the IPO price in the past, but they’ve benefited through their various group investments, like ETFs and retirement accounts. Some believe giving these same investors full, individual access goes a step too far.

Second, the exclusive nature of IPO investing traditionally has helped guarantee safe, successful IPOs. Wealthy and institutional investors agree to buy shares ahead of time, and the company can rest assured that it will have loyal investors the minute it goes public. Meanwhile, the institutional and high-net-worth investors can sleep easy knowing they’ll likely benefit from the opening day “pop,” which is often in double-figures, percentage-wise.

Investments from the little guys could throw this friendly arrangement into disarray. While institutional investors tend to make long-term, predictable investments, holding shares and reinvesting over time, everyday investors are theoretically much more unpredictable. Who’s to say many of these investors won’t dump their shares on day one, in order to immediately reap the benefits of a 10 to 20 percent “pop”? This volatile behavior can be disastrous for a new public company, which wants to project stability and confidence, not a roller coaster of share price spikes and dives.

Regardless of how this all plays out, the little investor is finally getting a seat back at the IPO table. Sometimes, just getting a chance to play is the most important part of all.