It’s hard to put a positive spin on terrible situation, but that didn’t stop Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon earlier today. Asked during a session at the World Economic Forum in Davos about WeWork’s yanked IPO in September, Solomon suggested it was proof that the listing process works, despite that the CFO of Goldman — one of the offering’s underwriters — disclosed last fall that the pulled deal cost the bank a whopping $80 million.
Reuters was on the scene, reporting that Solomon acknowledged the process was “not as pretty as everybody would like it to be,” while also eschewing any responsibility, telling those gathered that the “banks were not valuing [WeWork]. Banks give you a model. You say to the company, ‘Well, if you can prove to us that the model actually does what it does, then it’s possible that the company is worth this in the public markets,’” Solomon said.
Investment banks had reportedly courted WeWork’s business by discussing a variety of figures that led cofounder Adam Neumann to overestimate how it might be received by public market shareholders. According to the New York Times, in 2018, JPMorgan was telling Neumann that it could find buyers to value the company at more than $60 billion; while Goldman Sachs said $90 billion was a possibility, and Morgan Stanley — which has been assigned as lead underwriter of many of the buzziest tech offerings over the last decade — reportedly posited that even more than $100 billion was possible.
Ultimately, the IPO was canceled several weeks after Neumann was asked to resign and WeWork’s biggest investor, SoftBank — which itself nearly tripled the company’s private market valuation across funding rounds — stepped in to rescue its now $18.5 billion investment in the company.
Solomon isn’t the only one defending some of the frustrating logic of IPO pricing in recent years. This editor sat down in November with Morgan Stanley’s head tech banker Michael Grimes, who has been called “Wall Street’s Silicon Valley whisperer” for landing a seemingly endless string of coveted deals for the bank.
Because Morgan Stanley pulled out of the process of underwriting WeWork’s IPO (reportedly after WeWork rejected its pitch to be the company’s lead underwriter), we talked with Grimes instead about Uber, whose offering last year Morgan Stanley did lead. We asked how Uber could have been reportedly told by investment bankers that its valuation might be as high as $120 billion in an IPO when, as we now know, public market shareholders deemed it worth far less. (Its current market cap is roughly half that amount, at $64 billion.)
Grimes said matter-of-factly that price estimates can routinely be all over the place, explaining that “if you look at how companies are valued, at any given point of time right now, public companies with growth prospects and margins that are not yet at their mature margin, I think you’ll find on average price targets by either analysts who work at banks or buy-side investors that can be 100%, 200% and 300% different from low to high.”
He called that a “typical spread.”
The reason, he said, had to do with each bank’s or analyst’s guess at “penetration.”
“Let’s say, what, 100 million people or so [worldwide] have have been monthly active users of Uber,” said Grimes during our sit-down. “What percentage of the population is that? Less than 1% or something. Is that 1% going to be 2%, 3%, 6%, 10%, 20%? Half a percent, because people stop using it and turn instead to some flying [taxi]?
“So if you take all those variable, possible outcomes, you get huge variability in outcome. So it’s easy to say that everything should trade the same every day, but [look at what happened with Google]. You have some people saying maybe that is an outcome that can happen here for companies, or maybe it won’t. Maybe they’ll [hit their] saturation [point] or face new competitors.”
Grimes then turned the tables on reporters and others in the industry who wonder how banks could get the numbers so wrong, with Uber but also with a lot of other companies. “It’s really easy to be a pundit and say, ‘It should be higher’ or ‘It should be lower,’” Grimes said. “But investors are making decisions about that every day.”
Besides, he added, “We think our job is to be realistically optimistic” about where things will land. “If tech stops changing everything and software stops eating the world, there probably would be less of an optimistic bias.”