What’s Really Behind The Dwindling Number Of Stocks?

Thoughts on innovation and helping average investors find what’s next.

Over the past several years we’ve talked about the remarkable decline in the number of stocks. In 1997 there were around 8,800 publicly traded companies in the U.S. By the end of 2015, that number tumbled to 5,300. To put the decline in further context, in 1976, there were about 23 listed companies per 1 million U.S. citizens. Today, it’s closer to 11 per million.

The disappearance of stocks is concerning to the average investor. Simply: fewer stocks means fewer options to build a diversified portfolio. Also worrisome is that opportunities to invest in high-growth and emerging companies are declining. The surge of companies staying private (like, Uber or Airbnb) that receive funding through billion-dollar, non-public means such as private equity or venture capital funds further limits investing options for regular folks.

The disappearance isn’t all bad, however. In recent years, the declining volume of public companies hasn’t been primarily driven by failure.

Of course, Lehman Brothers and Washington Mutual were big examples during the crisis, but the drop is generally due to M&A and the ravenous acquisition appetites of big companies. This means that innovation isn’t being snuffed out, it’s just being consolidated more rapidly. Think – Microsoft buying LinkedIn or Keurig Green Mountain joining forces with Dr. Pepper Snapple Group.

There are several reasons for the loss of stocks. Another major one is increased regulation. Following the accounting scandals that rocked WorldCom and Enron, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act was passed. The ensuing costly financial regulation and compliance requirements hurt smaller companies trying to raise funds on the public capital markets – so much so that the average time to IPO is now more than 13 years compared to 3 years before SOX. Companies are even choosing to voluntarily delist and go private, rather than deal with regulatory issues. Strong global market returns, corporate profits, and M&A performance have increased the war chests of venture capital and private equity investors. A growing mix of angel and seed investors have also emerged. Companies realize they can access needed capital, without compliance headaches and public market scrutiny and still win. No longer is the IPO the marker of startup success.

Naturally, investors are concerned.

They read the statistics and wonder, “is innovation in America running out?” And, if so, “how can I actually invest in the remaining pockets of technology and other sector innovation out there?”

Let me tackle the easiest – but most worrisome – question first. No, innovation isn’t slowing. In fact, I am convinced we’ve actually entered the third wave of the industrial revolution. Emerging digital technologies like artificial intelligence, big data, predictive analytics and the Internet of Things are seismic technological advancements. They are easily on par with mass production, electrification and transportation in the 18th and 19th centuries. Fortunately, American entrepreneurship is thriving and is responsible for much global innovation. While concern around large corporates’ aggressive M&A and consolidation agendas are valid, these big companies – plus huge startup, university and business incubators – are actually creating viable innovation ecosystems all over.

Innovation is alive and well.

Last month I was in San Francisco and met with CEOs from over 20 world-changing startups. These companies don’t show up on prime-time news…yet. But they are quietly commercializing products and services that are changing the world. Let me give you a few examples:

Catalog – Data being created by phones, tablets, laptops, stoplights, smart refrigerators, defense drones and financial software is growing exponentially and will eventually outstrip the supply of hard drives needed to store it. Catalog, a Harvard research spinoff, is solving this problem by encoding data in DNA molecules. Storing data in DNA involves converting digital data into DNA code, and then synthesizing strings of DNA molecules with that code. The company is building a machine that can write up to a terabyte (1,000 gigabytes) of data a day, using 500 trillion molecules of DNA. Replicating molecules of DNA that are “stable” for centuries and dense enough to store all of the world’s date in a single room? Now that’s innovation.

Iron Ox – This startup created a fully autonomous hydroponic farm in California manned by two robots. One, a 1,000 lb behemoth named “Angus”, picks and transports plants, while the other (a robotic arm) takes care of finer motor skill tasks like seeding and transplanting. The robots use LIDAR, 3D cameras and advanced machine learning capabilities to detect pests and diseases and pick or pack produce. The farm is outfitted with the latest ‘smart’ technologies too – meaning it can grow plants with 90% less water and waste and yield up to 30x more than a comparable traditional farm. The company envisions these farms nearby cities worldwide reducing the time, travel and expense associated with delivering “fresh” produce hundreds of miles in any direction.

Diligent Robotics – This company has created “Moxi”, a human-like healthcare support robot designed to automate non-care, boring, logistical tasks that soak up to 30% of nurses’ and medical professionals’ time. The company dubs this assistant “friendly, sensitive and intuitive” and offers it as a teachable and adaptable support technology with millimeter manipulation accuracy. It is expected that Moxi will soon take over routine tasks like getting supplies, removing waste and shipping meds.

Innovation is growing, but what about access?

Now, on the second concern. The average investor is certainly disadvantaged when it comes to having easy access to innovative companies. In some ways, this has always been the case as Wall Street has made preferential deals available to its wealthy individual and institutional clients for decades. The challenge today is that there are fewer IPOs and publicly listed options to offset those sweetheart deals for the ultra-wealthy.

But I believe there are fundamental regulatory and technology infrastructure shifts taking place today. Together, these can turn the tide.

First, it’s important that investors not count themselves out unnecessarily. There are many private equity, hedge, venture or seed funds that are available to “accredited investors”. While this still eliminates a portion of the general public, being classified as “accredited” in the U.S. is a reality for many. Under U.S. securities law, this means having income exceeding $200,000 (or, $300,000 jointly with spouse) for the previous two years OR having a net worth greater than $1 million, excluding a primary residence.

If this still isn’t you, not to fear.

While the ways in which you invest today may still be limited, opportunities should expand. In July, lawmakers introduced a proposal to study the problem of high IPO fees which were keeping small companies from going public. Bigger companies can now negotiate lower underwriting fees too. Facebook went public and paid about a 1% underwriting fee, compared to 7% for small and midsized companies. The SEC Commissioner has condemned the fees, calling them a “middle-market tax” and intends to be vigilant in reigning in underwriting.

The JOBS Act also eased fundraising requirements for small companies with several regulatory exemptions. These created additional, non-IPO options for growing companies. “Reg A”, for example, sped up the regulatory pipeline by lessening document prep, legal and filing fees for small companies, while adding fundraising tiers of up to $20 million and $50 million. In some cases, these can be marketed to non-accredited investors. The act also introduced a new “Regulation Crowdfunding” (Reg. CF) exemption which provides means for the public to make equity crowdfunding investments. This helped spark a movement of crowdfunding sites like Indiegogo, SeedInvest, StartEngine and Wefunder and others with SEC-registered portals. These help the public make equity investments in companies raising capital on a small scale.

Over the next few years, it will be interesting to see how blockchain-based security tokens and “tokenization” options emerge for the general public too. These digital assets are programmable and can be enhanced with financial rights of ownership in an automated and secure way. The potential for companies to divvy up company ownership (like a stock) using digital securities in a fast, compliant, cheap, traceable and liquid way is remarkable. Regulated exchanges for these assets are emerging, and security token issuance platforms, like Polymath, have been built to help issuers, developers and investors launch these security tokens on the blockchain.

The bottom line.

We see a shrinking list of public companies or recognize that our iPhones look like they did three years ago and worry about a tech and innovation plateau. Definitely not the case.

Innovation is surging in spite of the cumbersome regulatory issues keeping companies private. For investors that want to tap into this innovation with equity investments, options are growing. Even investing in the public tech behemoths may offer more innovation exposure than the average investor expects. The big incumbents know that small, agile and funded startups are out to take market share. So they’re swooping in and buying the R&D, brain-power and entrepreneurism of top startups before they get disrupted. Think about it: by owning Alphabet, the Google parent, a retail investor owns leading autonomous vehicle, artificial intelligence, robotics, analytics and data storage capabilities too. So don’t overlook the innovation that does exist. But stay vigilant as regulation shifts and be ready to capture the new opportunities as they arise.

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