As 1999 winds down, so closes a record year for initial public offerings, one that was particularly profitable for the top-tier underwriters.
But as the deals got bigger and more numerous, another phenomenon took hold: the top three underwriters - all bulge-bracket investment banks - won over an increasingly large piece of the pie, combining to commandeer more than half.
Five of the largest first-time U.S. public offerings of all time took place this year. Volume is up 91%, and the number of issues has increased by 46%, compared with full-year 1998 levels. There have been 11 deals worth $1 billion or more, representing in aggregate almost 30% of the total volume, according to Thomson Financial Securities Data.
Morgan Stanley, Dean Witter Inc., Goldman Sachs Group Inc., and Merrill Lynch & Co. each got credit for three of the 10 largest deals this year. Combined, their share of the total volume exceeds 50%.
"There's no doubt that some of the largest transactions have been a significant driving force on the league tables," said Michael Tiedemann, a vice president in equity capital markets at J.P. Morgan & Co. The bank ranks seventh among IPO underwriters and was the only other firm to lead one of the top 10 deals this year - a $1.9 billion offering for pharmaceutical maker Genentech Inc.
Despite the predominance of the top-three underwriters, analysts said there is still room for commercial banks, particularly those whose equities activities are technology-oriented, to improve.
"It's really a two-tiered market," said Richard Peterson, a market strategist at Securities Data. "You have the big spinoff deals, which are few and far between, and then there are the tech deals."
For the first time, IPOs by technology companies surpassed issues by all other non-tech companies combined, both in volume and number of offerings, Mr. Peterson said. By last Thursday, 365 of the 540 IPOs were for technology companies, representing $37.6 billion worth of deals.
Todd Carter, director of investment banking at Robertson Stephens & Co., a unit of FleetBoston Financial Corp., said he expects the firm to be leading larger tech deals over the next three years, which should help it move up the league tables.
At mid-December, it was ranked eighth for leading IPOs in the United States, with 44 issues worth $2.6 billion.
Mr. Carter said he doesn't expect that more than a few tech IPOs will reach the magnitude of offerings such as United Parcel Service Inc.'s $4.4 billion offering or the $6.5 billion transaction expected by Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. next year.
That's because the top deals tend to be from companies that are older and quite large, which are not the characteristics of most tech companies at the IPO stage.
"It would be bad advice [to tell] a tech company not to access the public markets at an early stage," Mr. Carter said. "For Internet companies, for example, it's the cheapest way for them to raise capital and grow."
Huge tech IPOs may be more common as Fortune 1000 firms realize the capital-raising benefits of spinning off a subsidiary. AT&T Corp., for instance, is planning to sell 19% of its wireless business, which could amount to a $10 billion share sale.
That may be a boon for more than just the technology-oriented investment banks. "It's the relationships with the large corporations that count," J.P. Morgan's Mr. Tiedemann said.
Whatever the size, bankers say year-2000 fears are having little of the expected dampening affect on expected new issues in January. Mr. Carter said many people are working through the Christmas and New Year's holidays to get new offerings ready for January.
"I'm trying to take some time off, but I already know I'm going to be on the phone every day," Mr. Carter said.