In the past year, plenty of legislators, officials, and market watchers have moaned about the fact that many foreign initial public offerings have been going to markets -- particularly London -- other than the New York Stock Exchange
The thought process goes like this: A much larger set of companies has chosen to list in London, Paris, Frankfurt, or other markets instead of listing in the United States, as a direct result of overregulation here. To solve this, we simply must carve back some of the provisions of Sarbanes-Oxley -- the investor protection regulation that came about in the aftermath of hundreds of billions of investor losses from frauds at Enron, WorldCom, and a host of other companies.
OK, this may not be the kind of topic that excites the average investor, so let me put it another way: Could the next Google decide that listing in the United States just isn't worth it and go elsewhere?
Now do I have your attention?
I'm not a huge fan of red tape. If I ever ran for office, it would be on the "most laws are stupid" platform. But blaming Sarbanes-Oxley for a perceived downturn in U.S. market competitiveness doesn't make much sense. Yep, listing in the U.S. is expensive. Yes, there are a bunch of companies that have elected to list elsewhere, or to delist from the major exchanges in the United States, or to stay private.
But we have to remember that, for the first time in nearly a century, the majority of public company value is made up by firms that are not located in the U.S. Markets like London's AIM have thrown off their historic provincial limitations, deciding to compete aggressively for listings. Other markets, like Shanghai and Hong Kong, are attached to economies growing at a blistering pace. Of course these markets are attracting capital -- they're the gateways to some of the world's fastest-growing economies.
But of course, there are companies that point to U.S. regulatory costs as a reason to list elsewhere -- usually the AIM. My question is: What percentage of these companies would have qualified to list on the Nasdaq or the NYSE in the first place? We know from comments by Chinese officials that the overwhelming majority of companies listed on the Shanghai exchange have woefully deficient levels of corporate governance.
It should never be forgotten that a public listing is a convenience for the issuer, not the investor. It's their privilege. A whole slew of companies aren't listing in the U.S. because they can't. Does that seem like a bad thing for American investors? American investors have access on our major exchanges to monster foreign companies like PetroChina
Global access is getting better, not worse
While New York is important to the United States, and our markets should do what they can to improve competitiveness, it's not as though a foreign listing is a great impediment anymore. Beyond this, many foreign companies, like Nestle (NSGRY.PK), are available for trading on the Pink Sheets in the United States.
Comments from French power conglomerate Suez are illustrative. It recently gave up its U.S. listing on the New York Stock Exchange and moved its shares to the Pink Sheets. In its explanation, Suez noted that its share volume on the NYSE was low, that it did have a regulatory burden that it wanted to avoid, and that because the New York Stock Exchange had merged with its home exchange, Euronext, American investors would have better access anyway!
The world is becoming more connected. Trillions of dollars pass back and forth across borders each day. It's easier than ever for individual investors to buy stocks wherever companies are located -- just look at the online global trading platform at E*Trade
You'd be crazy not to look overseas
The funny thing is, most investors believe that international investing is risky, and should be only a small portion of their portfolio. They couldn't be more wrong. International markets are as diverse (and many are as safe) as the ones here in the U.S. -- and even in growth markets, like China, the level of shareholder protection has improved vastly.
Better yet, investing overseas grants you access to some of the great growth companies of tomorrow. The Motley Fool's Global Gains service focuses solely on finding the great international investing ideas from markets as diverse as Chile, Canada, and China. A 30-day guest pass is yours, with my compliments.
Bill Mann is the lead advisor of the Motley Fool Global Gains newsletter. Sterlite and Suez are Global Gains recommendations. NYSE Euronext is a Rule Breakers recommendation. The Fool has a disclosure policy, outlined here.