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Why Snapchat’s IPO Could Snap the Stock Market

October 28, 2016, 10:24 PM UTC

You could be forgiven for thinking that the U.S. IPO market is officially back in business.

American initial public offerings have recently rebounded. This week ZTO Express’s $1.4 billion offering, the biggest IPO of the year, made its debut. That followed the news that Snapchat is seeking to raise as much as $4 billion in its own IPO, giving the messaging app company—now officially just called Snap Inc.—a valuation of at least $25 billion when it goes public as soon as March 2017.

ZTO was just one of 19 companies to go public on U.S. stock exchanges so far in October—including six this week alone—exceeding last year’s deal count for the second month in a row, according to Renaissance Capital.

But the real picture of the U.S. IPO market isn’t as rosy as it appears. This year’s running IPO tally is 94, barely halfway towards reaching the 2015 IPO count of 170, with only two months to go. And although there have been more offerings this month than in October 2015, their total value was lower: So far in 2016, U.S. IPOs have raised $16.9 billion, 40% below the total raised at this time last year.

Worse, as smaller companies have suddenly rushed into the stock market, more have flopped: After IPO stocks achieved an average return of 21% on their first day trading last quarter—the best performance for stock debuts in years, according to Renaissance—recent IPOs have been less impressive. While only two of the 33 IPOs in the third quarter sank on their first day, nine of the 19 so far in the fourth quarter have fallen on their debut, and that’s just in October. That’s a flop rate of nearly 50%, compared to just 12% in all of last quarter. That means the odds of having a winning IPO lately are hardly better than a coin toss.

Even ZTO Express’ stock price declined 15% on its first day on the market Thursday—a disappointing result for 2016’s biggest IPO so far. By comparison, Line (LN) stock, besides being the second largest U.S. IPO this year (raising more than $1.1 billion in July), was also one of the best performing, returning 28% in its debut.

Snapchat’s parent company Snap hasn’t filed any of its official IPO paperwork yet nor set its IPO date, but it’s reportedly targeting an offering as early as the first quarter of 2017. Currently worth around $18 billion, the disappearing-message app has been teasing the market (and its investors) about going public for a long time, with its CEO and co-founder Evan Spiegel saying “We need to IPO” way back in May 2015. Still, Snap has likely been waiting for a sweet spot in the IPO market—one that might appear to be on the horizon, given the recent recovery from the IPO dry spell earlier this year.

But it’s worth reminding investors of another social networking company whose botched IPO could serve as a cautionary tale for Snapchat’s owner. When Facebook (FB) went public in May 2012, its much hyped $16 billion IPO was worth more than all the previous IPOs that year combined (which had together raised less than $12 billion). The market climate was also similar: The S&P 500 had finished the previous year close to flat (up only 2%), and after a weak start to 2012, it was up only 4% at the time of Facebook’s debut—about the same as it has returned so far in 2016. Although the IPO deal count had increased over the same period in 2011, the values of those offerings had lagged behind, and investors saw Facebook as a potential savior to revive the IPO market.

As we know now, that didn’t happen. Instead, Facebook stock went on a roller coaster ride, managing to stay just pennies above its IPO price by the close of its first day. Facebook shares fell 50% over the next three months, putting fear into other tech companies considering an IPO.

Snap may debut in a market similar to the one Facebook did, and certainly with at least as much hype—not lessened by the fact that Snapchat refused a $3 billion takeover offer from Facebook itself back in 2013. Indeed, if Snap raises $4 billion, it is set to be the biggest IPO since Alibaba (BABA) raised almost $22 billion in 2014, according to Renaissance Capital’s data. But if Wall Street is expecting Snapchat’s parent company’s IPO to encourage its tech unicorn peers to follow suit, those hopes may disappear faster than a snap.