Auction theorists predict that bookbuilding, long the standard process for selling equity IPOs in the U.S., is about to give way to an Internet-based IPO auction process that is both more efficient and more fair. The promise of auctions is that, by using an electronic platform that gives all investors the opportunity to bid on IPOs, the underpricing of IPOs and commissions to underwriters will be reduced, leading to an increase in net proceeds to issuers.
Largely missing from such arguments, however, is an appreciation of why bookbuilding has dominated U.S. practice (and continues to supplant auctions in IPOs in most countries outside the U.S) and the role of undepricing in the IPO process. Rather than canvassing all investors, bookbuilding involves eliciting expressions of interest from institutional investors, and then allocating shares mainly according to the strength of their professed interest. In contrast to auctions, which allocate shares according to a set of explicit rules, bookbuilding involves a set of implicit “rules” that provide considerable room for judgment by the underwriter. This does not mean that the rules are arbitrary or not well understood by participants, particularly after thousands of IPOs conducted over the better part of two centuries. But to manage the exchange of information between issuers and investors, and the potential conflicts of interest in representing both groups, such rules must be administered by an intermediary with a considerable stake in protecting its reputation for fair dealing. Investment banks that deal with both issuers and the investment community on a regular basis are well positioned to perform this function.
The underpricing of IPOs is best viewed not as a transfer of wealth from issuers to favored investors but rather as compensation to the large influential investors that play a major role in the price discovery process. By opening the process to all comers, auctions will discourage these large investors from bidding aggressively because less sophisticated investors will be able to “free ride” on their research and due diligence. To the extent this happens, auctions may suc ceed in reducing underpricing (in fact, they may even lead to over pricing), but they will also reduce the net proceeds for issuers.
Nevertheless, recent advances in communications technology and auction theory will undoubtedly reshape current securities underwriting practices. In particular, Internet auctions are likely to replace bookbuilding in debt IPOs and less risky equity issues (say, IPOs of LBOs). But the argument that Bookbuilding will be completely cast aside in favor of largely untested alternatives fails to appreciate a successful institutional response to major market imperfections, some of which can never be wholly eliminated. Especially in the case of risky (first-time) equity IPOs, there will continue to be an important role for managing the information exchange between issuers and investors that is critical to the IPO process.