With the potential for fortunes made and lost, are IPOs more Las Vegas than Wall Street?

The majority of regular investors who buy into an IPO do so because they think they can make a quick buck. But, as with Las Vegas, the house always wins.
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By Erik Sherman

The Uber initial public offering, or IPO, has been long awaited — and hyped. Thousands of investors and regular people will be watching Friday as the rideshare giant goes public, with some thinking about trying to grab a piece of the action.

When a company goes public, many people can suddenly find themselves wealthy, some insanely so. It's tempting and the thought, exhilarating. But the chance of making a quick profit on any IPO when you aren't an insider is unlikely.

"It's the speculative attraction, the excitement, similar to going to Las Vegas to gamble for a big winning," David Kass, a professor of finance at the University of Maryland, said. "But, like Las Vegas, the odds are against you."

Your chances of doing well on that first day are slim to none because, like Las Vegas, the game is designed to favor the house. In the case of an IPO, the house is the company's early investors, the investment bank underwriters that promote and sell the IPO to big institutional investors, and favored customers of the underwriters.

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Institutional investors and the favored customers and other insiders buy shares from the company at a preset price, which for Uber was $45, letting it raise $8.1 billion for itself at a market value of $75.5 billion.

When the market opens, those who own shares (other than employees, who generally have to wait six months) get to sell them. Early investors will sell stock to lock in their profit. For a company like Uber, which had received a stunning $24.7 billion in investment ahead of the IPO, there are people who badly want to recoup their investment. The institutional investors and insiders also may sell some of their shares for a quick profit.

"The majority of people investing in an IPO as retail [individual] investors do so because they think they can make a quick buck," said Adam Dechtman, a certified financial planner with Dechtman Wealth Management. "Who's making the money? It's the underwriters and the early investors."

Regular people don't get the low price the initial investors got, nor the IPO price. They pay the rates that come from the market and which will likely be higher — maybe much higher.

The hope is that shares, and your net worth as a result, will appreciate in price. Reaching that goal from an IPO is harder today than it once was. "What we've seen as a trend is that these companies are staying private much longer than in the past," said Nicole Tanenbaum, chief investment strategist at Chequers Financial Management. A lot of the appreciation in value has already happened by the time of the IPO, leaving less room for prices to skyrocket.

The way to make money would be to buy a stock and hold it for the long term, as the company matures.

Ultimately, if someone really wants to invest in a company going public, the best decision might be to wait.

"Stock will be trading the next day, the next week, the next month," said Kass. "What's the urgency of buying today?"