|The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with the United States and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (December 2010)|
A public company, publicly traded company, publicly held company, or public limited company (in the United Kingdom) is a limited liability company that offers its securities (stock/shares, bonds/loans, etc.) for sale to the general public, typically through a stock exchange, or through market makers operating in over the counter markets. Public companies, including public limited companies, can be either unlisted or listed on a stock exchange depending on their size and local legislation.
Public companies are not to be confused with Government-owned corporations – also known as publicly owned companies – which are also sometimes called public companies.
Securities of a public company
Usually, the securities of a publicly traded company are owned by many investors while the shares of a privately held company are owned by relatively few shareholders. A company with many shareholders is not necessarily a publicly traded company. In the United States, in some instances, companies with over 500 shareholders may be required to report under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934; companies that report under the 1934 Act are generally deemed public companies. The first company to issue shares is generally held to be the Dutch East India Company in 1601, but quasi-corporate entities, often trading or shipping concerns, are known to have existed as far back as Roman times.
Publicly traded companies are able to raise funds and capital through the sale (in the primary or secondary market) of their securities, whether debt or equity. This is the reason publicly traded corporations are important: prior to their existence, it was very difficult to obtain large amounts of capital for private enterprises. The profit on stock or bonds is gained in form of dividend or capital gain to the holders of such securities.
The financial media and analysts will be able to access additional information about the business.
Privately held companies have several advantages over publicly traded companies. A privately held company has no requirement to publicly disclose much, if any, financial information; such information could be useful to competitors. For example, publicly traded companies in the United States are required by the SEC to submit an annual Form 10-K containing a comprehensive detail of a company's performance. Privately held companies do not file Forms 10-K; they leak less information to competitors, and they tend to be under less pressure to meet quarterly projections for sales and profits.
Publicly traded companies are also required to spend more for certified public accountants and other bureaucratic paperwork required of all publicly traded companies under government regulations. For example, the Sarbanes–Oxley Act in the United States does not apply to privately held companies. The money and income of the owners remains relatively unknown by the public.
In the United States, the Securities and Exchange Commission requires that firms whose stock is traded publicly report their major stockholders each year. The reports identify all institutional shareholders (primarily, firms owning stock in other companies), all company officials who own shares in their firm, and any individual or institution owning more than 5% of the firm’s stock.
For many years, newly created companies were privately held but held initial public offering to become publicly traded company or to be acquired by another company if they became larger and more profitable or had promising prospects. More infrequently, some companies—such as investment banking firm Goldman Sachs and logistics services provider United Parcel Service (UPS) -- chose to remain privately held for a long period of time after maturity into a profitable company.
However from 1997 to 2012, the number of corporations publicly traded on American stock exchanges dropped 44%. According to one observer (Gerald F. Davis), "public corporations have become less concentrated, less integrated, less interconnected at the top, shorter lived, less remunerative for average investors, and less prevalent since the turn of the 21st century". Davis argues that technological changes such as the decline in price and increasing power, quality and flexibility of computer Numerical control machines and newer digitally enabled tools such as 3D printing will lead to smaller and more local organization of production.
A group of private investors or another company that is privately held can buy out the shareholders of a public company, taking the company private. This is typically done through a leveraged buyout and occurs when the buyers believe the securities have been undervalued by investors. In some cases, public companies that are in severe financial distress may also approach a private company, or companies to take over ownership and management of the company. One possibility would be to participate in a fresh round of share-rights issue calculated to provide the share-buyer with a super majority. With a super majority, the company could then be de-listed i.e. privatized.
In addition, one publicly traded company may be purchased by one or more publicly traded company(ies), with the bought-out company either becoming a subsidiary or joint venture of the purchaser(s) or ceasing to exist as a separate entity, its former shareholders receiving either cash, shares in the purchasing company or a combination of both. When the compensation in question is primarily shares then the deal is often considered a merger. Subsidiaries and joint ventures can also be created de novo - this often happens in the financial sector. Subsidiaries and joint ventures of publicly traded companies are not generally considered to be privately held companies (even though they themselves are not publicly traded) and are generally subject to the same reporting requirements as publicly traded companies. Finally, shares in subsidiaries and joint ventures can be (re)-offered to the public at any time - firms that are sold in this manner are called spin-outs.
Most industrialized jurisdictions have enacted laws and regulations that detail the steps that prospective owners (public or private) must undertake if they wish to take over a publicly traded corporation. This often entails the would-be buyer(s) making a formal offer for each share of the company to shareholders. Normally some form of supermajority is required for this sort of the offer to be approved, but once it happens then usually all shareholders are compelled to sell at the agreed-upon price and the company either becomes a subsidiary, ceases to exist or becomes privately held.
Trading and valuation
The shares of a publicly traded company are often traded on a stock exchange. The value or "size" of a company is called its market capitalization, a term which is often shortened to "market cap". This is calculated as the number of shares outstanding (as opposed to authorized but not necessarily issued) times the price per share. For example, a company with two million shares outstanding and a price per share of US$40 has a market capitalization of US$80 million. However, a company's market capitalization should not be confused with the fair market value of the company as a whole since the price per share are influenced by other factors such as the volume of shares traded. Low trading volume can cause artificially low prices for securities, due to investors being apprehensive of investing in a company they perceive as possibly lacking liquidity.
For example, if all shareholders were to simultaneously try to sell their shares in the open market, this would immediately create downward pressure on the price for which the share is traded unless there were an equal number of buyers willing to purchase the security at the price the sellers demand. So, sellers would have to either reduce their price or choose not to sell. Thus, the number of trades in a given period of time, commonly referred to as the "volume" is important when determining how well a company's market capitalization reflects true fair market value of the company as a whole. The higher the volume, the more the fair market value of the company is likely to be reflected by its market capitalization.
Another example of the impact of volume on the accuracy of market capitalization is when a company has little or no trading activity and the market price is simply the price at which the most recent trade took place, which could be days or weeks ago. This occurs when there are no buyers willing to purchase the securities at the price being offered by the sellers and there are no sellers willing to sell at the price the buyers are willing to pay. While this is rare when the company is traded on a major stock exchange, it is not uncommon when shares are traded over-the-counter (OTC). Since individual buyers and sellers need to incorporate news about the company into their purchasing decisions, a security with an imbalance of buyers or sellers may not feel the full effects of recent news.
- Crown corporation
- Government agency
- Non-departmental public body
- plc, public company under UK legislation
- Publicly unlisted company
- Statutory corporation
- Public bodies
- Regulatory agency
- Statutory Agency