So Tesla is doing great, right? And I sure would love to make as much money as Elon Musk! So let’s make our own vehicle startup.
What should we call it? Hmm, picking a name is hard. Let’s just go with Tesla’s first name, Nikola!
Now we have to make a truck. But making the whole engine thingy is a pain! How about we just let it roll down a hill, take a video and raise lots of money? Yay!
Believe it or not, this is exactly what Nikola, the electric truck startup, did. And they even admitted it…once they were caught. But hey, they didn’t technically lie:
Nikola described this third-party video on the Company’s social media as ‘In Motion.’ It was never described as ‘under its own propulsion’ or ‘powertrain driven’.
How is this company with no real product even public? That’s where Special Purpose Acquisition Companies, or SPACs, come in. A SPAC raises money from investors to buy a private company to acquire. They’re exploding in popularity:
Amid the global stock market volatility, last year’s $83 billion haul by SPACs was six times the amount raised in 2019 and nearly equaled the figure mustered by IPOs.
Nikola went public via a merger with a SPAC in March of 2020. Just a few months later, it wound up under a federal investigation for securities fraud. Its stock is down from a high of over 60 to barely 20.
What made this SPAC want to acquire such a questionable company? SPACs collect a big fee if they acquire a company, but if they don’t acquire anything, there’s no fee. This gives the people who created it (“sponsors”) a strong incentive to acquire anything, regardless of merit:
More than 300 SPACs need to pull that off this year or risk being liquidated. But with only so many quality targets to go round, and SPAC founders’ strong incentive to close deals — even at the expense of shareholder value — SPACs may well end up in a negative spiral of poor quality/bad press/tighter regulation.
Since so many new SPACs are being created, and there are only so many quality private companies to go around, they’re getting less and less picky:
Then there is the fact that many firms taken public by SPACs have little to show in terms of business plan or revenue, in some cases triggering shareholder lawsuits by disgruntled investors.
Typically, a company with no profits isn’t a good candidate to go public. A company with no revenue is even more suspect. Maybe that’s why they’re not going the traditional IPO route.
Indeed, research on a large pool of SPACs and normal IPOs (127 SPACs and 1128 IPOs) show that the SPACs do much worse:
SPAC firms are associated with severe underperformance in comparison to the market
If they have such a well-documented record of underperformance, why are SPACs so popular? My hunch is it has to do with the fees for the sponsors, which are often several times greater than for a traditional IPO. That’s peachy for the sponsors, but I think investors are better served by avoiding all but the strongest SPAC deals. You’ll probably just wind up paying too many fees and buying an inferior company.
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