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Photo: Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images

This year's rush of unicorns to the public market is challenging many long-held notions about the stock market, perhaps most notably the idea that companies need pricey investment bankers and other well-paid middlemen to go public.

Why it matters: With a historically low number of companies going public in recent years, investment banks are relying on big deals from billion-dollar companies like Uber, Zoom and Lyft to make their money.

The latest: Slack held its "investor day" earlier this week ahead of a direct public listing expected in early June instead of a traditional IPO, and all eyes are on how it performs.

  • If future unicorns and minotaurs like Juul, Stripe or Airbnb choose direct listings over IPOs the well could start to run dry.

How it works: In a traditional IPO, one or more investment banks serve as underwriters — financial experts who manage many aspects of the offering.

  • They set up roadshows to court potential buyers and raise capital.
  • File paperwork with the SEC.
  • Set the IPO price and buy shares from the company then sell them to various investors through their distribution networks.
  • Provide a safeguard if demand is weaker than expected.

Be smart: Underwriters have typically charged fees of "4-7% of gross proceeds, plus an additional $4.2 million of offering costs directly attributable to the IPO," according to PwC, no matter how the IPO goes. (Larger companies typically get to pay much lower IPO fees, e.g., Uber's underwriters walked away with a paltry $100 million.) That's a hefty price to pay, but until recently was simply the cost of doing business.

The big picture: Bankers have warned that direct listings are risky, but the unimpressive IPOs of Lyft and Uber are challenging the notion that companies benefit by going the traditional route.

  • Despite having the cream of the crop in the likes of Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and Credit Suisse, among many others on their underwriting teams, both companies' stocks have flamed out and late-stage investors are now underwater.

The bottom line: Slack is the first headline company to pursue a direct listing since Spotify successfully went public last year. Axios' Dan Primack tells me more companies are talking to Spotify about direct listings and considering following its blueprint.

What to watch: Companies are staying private longer as they consistently are able to raise larger amounts of capital through private funding. It's a new market reality that means less companies for investors to choose from and higher multiples for the stock market overall.

Expand chart
Data: World Bank; Chart: Axios Visuals

SEC Chair Jay Clayton recently bemoaned the new environment as leaving much of America without the opportunity to benefit from what's becoming an increasingly important share of the U.S. economy.

  • "We have to do something about that," Clayton said earlier this month at the Investment Company Institute's annual gathering.

What's next? For investment banks, it's a double-edged sword: Fewer companies go public, and some that do are big enough and will hold sufficient brand recognition to skirt an IPO and go straight to the public.

  • Yes, but: Even in direct listings, companies are still consulting with bankers, who will likely never be completely left out in the cold.

Go deeper: Spotify inspires unicorns to ponder going public via direct listing

Go deeper

1 hour ago - Health

CDC: It's time for "universal face mask use"

Photo: Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty

The CDC is urging “universal face mask use” for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began, citing recent case spikes as the U.S. has entered a phase of “high-level transmission” before winter officially begins.

Why it matters: Daily COVID-related deaths across the U.S. hit a new record on Wednesday. Face coverings have been shown to increase protection of the wearer and those around them, despite some Americans' reluctance to use them.

2 hours ago - World

Saudi Arabia and Qatar near deal to end standoff, sources say

Qatar's prime minister (R) attends the 2019 Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Saudi Arabia. Photo: Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty

Saudi Arabia and Qatar are close to a deal to end the diplomatic crisis in the Gulf following U.S.-mediated reconciliation talks this week, sources familiar with the talks tell me.

Why it matters: Restoring relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar would bring a sense of stability back to the Gulf after a 3.5 year standoff. It could also notch a last-minute achievement for the Trump administration before Jan. 20.

House passes bill to decriminalize marijuana

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), a longtime marijuana legalization advocate and co-sponsor of the bill. Photo: Pete Marovich For The Washington Post via Getty Images

The House on Friday voted 228-164 in favor of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, marking the first time a congressional chamber has voted in favor of decriminalizing marijuana at the federal level.

Why it matters: The Washington Post describes the bill as a "landmark retreat in the nation’s decades-long war on drugs," which has disproportionately affected people of color.