A number of potential clients have asked what returns they might expect from the average IPO.

To determine the return of the average IPO we thought it might make more sense to look at a portfolio of all tech IPOs and compare it to the S&P 500, as well as a typical diversified portfolio. Our rationale for these comparisons is pretty simple. We wanted to see if an investor is appropriately compensated for the additional risk she takes by investing in relatively immature companies.

Evaluating IPO Performance From 1990 To 2013

There were 1,218 tech IPOs brought to market between January 1, 1990 and December 31, 2013. In researching these IPOs, we were unable to find ticker symbols for 22, and for 297 out of the group we could not locate price information (both are likely evidence that either the companies in question failed or were acquired for very low prices). This left us with a universe of 899 stocks to analyze.

To evaluate the performance of the IPOs we built a hypothetical portfolio with the following assumptions: We invested an equal amount of money in each of the 899 tech IPO stocks at their closing prices on the first day they began to trade. We chose the closing price rather than the IPO price because it is highly unlikely an individual can buy an IPO stock at its initial offering price. That’s because almost all IPO shares are reserved for institutional investors. Next we calculated the time-weighted return for the portfolio because we thought that would provide the best apples-to-apples comparison to the way the S&P 500® return is calculated. We also calculated annual standard deviations for both the portfolio of tech IPOs and the S&P 500 based on their monthly returns. This in turn enabled us to calculate the Sharpe Ratio for each. We calculated Sharpe Ratios in order to measure each portfolio’s risk-adjusted return. The Sharpe Ratio divides a portfolio’s excess return over the risk-free rate (the 3-month treasury bill rate) by its standard deviation.

899 IPOs S&P 500
Annual Return 14.1% 7.1%
Stdev 51.3% 18.3%
Sharpe Ratio 0.27 0.39

The 899 tech IPOs had a much higher annualized return than the S&P 500. This is consistent with what we would have expected because tech IPOs are a higher risk investment than the US stock market in general — and higher risk usually commands a higher return. However, the risk-adjusted return of the tech IPOs was much lower than the S&P 500, almost 1/3 lower  (0.27 versus 0.39 for the S&P). This clearly proves the point that investing in IPOs is not worth the risk.

Evaluating Tech IPOs Against a Diversified Portfolio

For further perspective we thought it might make sense to compare the tech IPO portfolio to a classic diversified portfolio over the same time period. To represent the diversified portfolio we created a hypothetical portfolio with an asset allocation one would find in a risk level 7 portfolio employed by Wealthfront (risk level 7 is the average risk level for all Wealthfront clients). We started our back tests on January 1, 1998 because that is the first date we have index data available to calculate what the hypothetical diversified portfolio would have returned if it were available. Limiting the time frame to 1998 through 2013 further reduced our tech IPO sample to 653 companies. The following table presents the return analysis for the shorter time period:

653 IPOs S&P 500 Diversified portfolio
Annual Return 9.5% 4.1% 4.6%
Stdev 61.4% 19.3% 16.1%
Sharpe Ratio 0.16 0.21 0.28

Again, not surprisingly the tech IPO portfolio generated a higher nominal return than the S&P 500, but a much lower risk-adjusted return (0.16 vs. 0.21) due to its far greater volatility (standard deviation). Also not surprisingly, the diversified portfolio generated a risk-adjusted return well in excess of either alternative. It was somewhat surprising that the diversified portfolio generated a higher nominal return than the S&P 500 given its  lower risk (volatility).

Adjusting for the Bubble

Critics might point out that the period from 1998 to 2013 includes the bursting of the tech bubble in March 2000, which could have significantly influenced the outcome of this analysis. In order to address this concern we also looked at the nominal and risk-adjusted returns for all three portfolios from January 1, 2001 to December 31, 2013. Limiting the time period reduced our sample of IPOs to 205 companies.

205 IPOs S&P 500 Diversified portfolio
Annual Return 1.3% 2.6% 4.2%
Stdev 28.2% 19.7% 17.0%
Sharpe Ratio 0.05 0.13 0.25

Once again the tech IPO portfolio produced the worst risk-adjusted returns and the diversified portfolio produced the best risk-adjusted returns. You might be surprised to find that the tech IPO portfolio’s nominal return underperformed the S&P 500 during this period. Perhaps the underperformance can be explained by the removal of the incredible returns during the highly speculative tech bubble of the late ‘90s.

Our Analysis Overstates IPO Returns

I think it’s safe to say based on this analysis that investing in a general basket of tech IPOs is not a good idea. As a matter of fact we believe our analysis overstates  the performance of the tech IPOs because it includes significant survivorship bias. It is highly likely that the vast majority of the 313 companies we had to remove from our analysis due to lack of ticker symbol or pricing information underperformed the remaining tech IPO portfolio.


No matter how you look at it, you are unlikely to be adequately compensated for taking the risk associated with an investment in a broad basket of tech IPOs. A great deal of attention has been paid to the big IPO winners, but unfortunately the number of losers far exceeds the number of winners. We hope you think twice before jumping in to a buy a recent IPO. The odds are certainly not in your favor.

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Nothing in this blog should be construed as tax advice, a solicitation or offer, or recommendation, to buy or sell any security. Financial advisory services are only provided to investors who become Wealthfront Inc. clients pursuant to a written agreement, which investors are urged to read carefully, that is available at www.wealthfront.com. All securities involve risk and may result in some loss. For more information please visit www.wealthfront.com or see our Full Disclosure. While the data Wealthfront uses from third parties is believed to be reliable, Wealthfront does not guarantee the accuracy of the information.


To achieve the hypothetical Sharpe Ratios described here, we measured returns for three portfolios for the time periods discussed: A hypothetical portfolio of tech IPO stocks, the S&P 500 Total Return, both of which consists of one asset class, and a hypothetical diversified taxable portfolio, consisting of six asset classes. For the diversified taxable portfolio, we did not consider the effects of rebalancing, dividend reinvestment or advisory fees. We assumed the “risk free rate” to be the three-month Treasury bill rates. After we measured the simulated historical monthly returns of the investments over the periods, we were able to calculate the Sharpe Ratio for each portfolio.


Hypothetical performance is not an indicator of future actual results. Hypothetical results are calculated by the retroactive application of a model constructed on the basis of historical data and based on assumptions integral to the model which may or may not be testable and are subject to losses. Wealthfront assumed we would have been able to purchase the securities recommended by the model and the markets were sufficiently liquid to permit all trading. Hypothetical performance is developed with the benefit of hindsight and has inherent limitations. Specifically, hypothetical results do not reflect actual trading or the effect of material economic and market factors on the decision-making process. Actual performance may differ significantly from hypothetical performance. There is a potential for loss as well as gain that is not reflected in the hypothetical information portrayed. Investors evaluating this information should carefully consider the processes, data, and assumptions used by Wealthfront in creating its historical simulations.



While the data used for its historical simulation are from sources that Wealthfront believes are reliable, the results represent Wealthfront’s opinion only. The return information uses or includes information compiled from third-party sources. Wealthfront does not guarantee the accuracy of the information and may receive incorrect information from third-party providers. Unless otherwise indicated, the information has been prepared by Wealthfront and has not been reviewed, compiled or audited by any independent third party or public accountant. Wealthfront does not control the composition of the market indices or fund information used for its calculations, and a change in this information could affect the results shown.


The S&P 500 (“Index”) is a product of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and/or its affiliates and has been licensed for use by Wealthfront. Copyright © 2015 by S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC, a subsidiary of the McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved. Redistribution, reproduction and/or photocopying in whole or in part are prohibited Index Data Services Attachment without written permission of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC. For more information on any of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC’s indices please visit www.spdji.com. S&P® is a registered trademark of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones® is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. Neither S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC, Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC, their affiliates nor their third party licensors make any representation or warranty, express or implied, as to the ability of any index to accurately represent the asset class or market sector that it purports to represent and neither S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC, Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC, their affiliates nor their third party licensors shall have any liability for any errors, omissions, or interruptions of any index or the data included therein.

About the author(s)

Celine is Wealthfront’s research scientist and works on a wide range of projects and in-depth quantitative data analysis. She applies her econometric expertise to developing and improving investment strategies and research infrastructure. Among Celine's other work prior to joining Wealthfront was a stint as an intern at Parametric Portfolio Associates where she formulated tax sensitive trade strategies, performed scenario analysis and built a tax-managed portfolio simulator in R. She earned her PhD in Financial Economics from the University of Washington where she also earned her MBA and Computational Finance Certificate. She received her MS in Statistics from Syracuse University and BS in Mathematics from the University of Science and Technology of China. Andy is Wealthfront’s Executive Chairman. He serves as a member of the board of trustees and vice chairman of the endowment investment committee for University of Pennsylvania and as a member of the faculty at Stanford Graduate School of Business, where he teaches courses on technology entrepreneurship. Prior to Wealthfront, Andy co-founded and was general partner of Benchmark Capital, where he was responsible for investing in a number of successful companies including Equinix, Juniper Networks, and Opsware. He also spent ten years as a general partner with Merrill, Pickard, Anderson & Eyre (MPAE). Andy earned his BS from University of Pennsylvania and his MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business. He has frequently been named to Forbes magazine’s The Midas List as a top tech venture investor. View all posts by Celine Sun, PhD and Andy Rachleff