The decline of the public stock market

By Felix Salmon
February 14, 2011
NYT op-ed on the decline of public stock exchanges hit the web this evening than Ira Stoll was ready with a trenchant reply.

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That was quick! Barely had my NYT op-ed on the decline of public stock exchanges hit the web this evening than Ira Stoll was ready with a trenchant reply.

Stoll is sanguine about the fact that the number of companies listed on U.S. exchanges has declined from 7,000 in 1997 to 4,000 today. “Suppose that the number went to 4,000 from 7,000 because many of the 7,000 companies merged with each other to become even larger and more dominant,” he writes, “and that the current 4,000 listed companies have three times the sales and three times the market capitalization they did in 1997.”

Actually, let’s not suppose that and instead let’s look at some numbers. I don’t have sales numbers, but I do have market capitalization numbers, from the World Federation of Exchanges. At the end of 1997, U.S. exchanges had a total market capitalization of $13 trillion; by the end of 2010, that had risen by about 24% to $17 trillion. Which in real terms actually works out as a slight decline in market cap. Meanwhile, GDP grew from $8.3 trillion in 1997 to $14.7 trillion in 2010 — that’s an increase of 76% in nominal terms, three times the rate of growth of U.S. stock market capitalization.

But more broadly, Stoll is making my point for me — that the U.S. stock market is increasingly made up of enormous and dominant companies and features ever fewer of the smaller, fast-growing companies which really drive the economy. When public companies are acquired or delisted or go bankrupt, there’s not nearly enough in the IPO pipeline to replace them. The result is a market of dinosaurs.

I also claim that the market is doing a bad job at allocating capital efficiently — after all, the market hasn’t allocated any capital to Apple since 1981. I don’t for a minute think I have a better idea than Steve Jobs what to do with Apple’s cash pile and in fact have said quite explicitly that it shouldn’t be paid out in dividends. But when investors buy Apple stock, their money doesn’t go to Apple, but rather to the other investors that they’re buying the stock from. The stock market becomes a money-go-round for speculators, rather than a way of directing capital at companies.

Finally, the “ultra-rich elite” I’m talking about is not the broad universe of people who are considered accredited investors by the SEC, but rather the tiny group of individuals who are given the opportunity to invest in private companies. If you’re well connected in Silicon Valley — if your name is Ron Conway or Vinod Khosla — then you have loads of such opportunities. But the rest of us don’t, whether we’re formally accredited investors or not.

I’m not making any policy recommendations in this piece — I don’t think that the rules about accredited investors should be weakened further, or that all Americans have some kind of automatic right to be able to buy a piece of Facebook. But I do think that the public stock market is less important now than it was in the past and that its decline is going to continue in future decades just as it has done since 1997.

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