He observes that:
In the past twenty years [the] U.S. has lost almost 50% of its publicly traded firms [from 6,797 in 1997 to 3,485 in 2013, AT]. This decline has been so dramatic, that the number of firms these days is lower than it has been in the early 1970s, when the real gross domestic product in the U.S. was one third of what it is today. This phenomenon has been a general pattern that has affected over 90% of U.S. industries.
A rather stunning finding from Grullon, Larkin and Michaely.
The total number of firms has dropped far less than the number of publicly traded firms, so in part this is probably due to laws affecting publicly traded firms in particular such as Sarbanes-Oxley. But there has also been a small drop in the total number of firms (depending on year measured) and concentration ratios have increased which suggests that competition might have fallen. (I wish the authors had looked more closely at the entire size distribution). Have international firms risen to offset the decline of publicly-trade firms? The authors discuss but discount the role of globalization. I don’t see, however, how their findings of small effects on output competition are consistent with big labor market effects. Nevertheless the bottom line is that as concentration rates have increased so have profits, as a recent CEA report also argues.
Is this all the after-effects of the Great Recession? I hope so but the decline in the number of publicly traded firms is also consistent with the research on long-run declining dynamism (including my own research on regulation and dynamism) which shows that startup and reallocation rates have been trending down for thirty years.
The drop in publicly held firms reported here is consistent with other reports, so let us take it as given. And I agree with Alex that there are multiple factors at work here:
- Lingering effects of the Great Recession, during which some estimates claim as many as 170,000 businesses failed.
- Consolidation. M&A activity has recovered from its 2008 lows and is resulting in a decline in the number of companies as more are combining than being created.
- The first two factors meant that in recent years many startups switched their exit strategy from an IPO to a sale to an established company.
- Secular stagnation.
We all have home field biases, of course, but I tend to think the regulatory aspect has had a crushing effect on public corporations. Firms that were public went dark, while privately held firms decided to remain private or to sell to an acquirer rather than go the IPO route:
During the first half of the last decade, evidence accumulated that the U.S. capital markets were becoming less competitive relative to their major competitors. The evidence reviewed herein confirms that it was not corporate governance as such that was the problem, but rather corporate governance regulation. In particular, attention focused on such issues as the massive growth in corporate and securities litigation risk and the increasing complexity and cost of the U.S. regulatory scheme.
Tentative efforts towards deregulation largely fell by the wayside in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007-2008. Instead, massive new regulations came into being, especially in the Dodd Frank Act. The competitive position of U.S. capital markets, however, continues to decline.
This essay argues that litigation and regulatory reform remain essential if U.S. capital markets are to retain their leadership position. Unfortunately, the article concludes that federal corporate governance regulation follows a ratchet effect, in which the regulatory scheme becomes more complex with each financial crisis. If so, significant reform may be difficult to achieve.
Corporate Governance and U.S. Capital Market Competitiveness (October 22, 2010). UCLA School of Law, Law-Econ Research Paper No. 10-13. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1696303