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Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Robinhood IPO Is No Giveaway

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Robinhood Markets likes to give away free shares to attract new customers. Its public offering to investors is a different matter.

The offering bears some similarity to recent IPOs such as

Coinbase Global

and

Rocket Cos.,

which made their debut in the midst of crypto and mortgage booms, respectively. Investors had the challenge of trying to chart out a normalized earnings and revenue path. So far, neither of those prior examples have worked out for initial public investors.

Robinhood derives the vast majority of its revenue from trading by its customers, including in cryptocurrencies like Dogecoin. In this topsy-turvy market, it will be quite difficult to forecast what that activity level looks like a year from now. Plus, its primary trading revenue source is payment for order flow, one of the most hotly debated topics in finance and in Washington.

Amid that uncertainty, there is one measure that cuts through a lot of the noise: how much an investor would be paying at the IPO valuation per funded account. That is a way to benchmark Robinhood to established peers in the retail brokerage business.

At the proposed IPO price range set on Monday, a funded Robinhood customer account is worth about $1,500 to $1,600. Contrast that to a long-term average of about $2,000 for E*Trade over the past 15 years, before it was acquired for about $1,800 by Morgan Stanley, according to figures compiled by Christian Bolu of Autonomous Research. Charles Schwab, a much broader wealth- and asset-management business, has traded around $3,600 historically, and is closer to $4,000 today.

Vlad Tenev, co-founder and chief executive officer of Robinhood Markets. It will be Robinhood’s broad appeal that is most vital to justifying the IPO price.



Photo:

Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News

So that multiple isn’t by itself wild and suggests that, even if Robinhood has to alter its revenue model, it could still be a viable business just by virtue of the number of customers it has. But it also is giving Robinhood credit for a lot of growth it has yet to achieve. Consider that Robinhood’s typical funded account had about $4,500 worth of assets in custody at the end of the second quarter. The established retail brokers’ typical accounts are well into the six figures.

Yes, Robinhood’s accounts on average trade more. But overall, Robinhood still generates much less revenue out of its customers, in part because they are smaller. In the first quarter, average revenue per user was $137 at Robinhood. By contrast, TD Ameritrade and E*Trade were generating more than $500 around the time they were acquired, according to Autonomous. Charles Schwab was above $600 in the first quarter.

So the per-account price implies that Robinhood will either far better monetize its customers in the future, grow them at a much faster rate, or some combination thereof. Faster growth is much more likely, based on recent history: Schwab added 1.7 million net new brokerage accounts in the second quarter, while Robinhood added 4.5 million funded accounts on net. “Expanding the universe of investors has been, and we expect will continue to be, a significant driver of our market-leading growth,” Robinhood writes in the IPO prospectus.

Meanwhile, per-user revenue trends are already slowing. Preliminary second-quarter results given by Robinhood imply a drop-off in average revenue per user to under $120, with Robinhood noting that, while cryptocurrency and options trading are growing, equities trading activity in the second quarter was lower than it was a year ago.

The company can build on other revenue streams, which include margin loans to customers and cash management. But low pricing is a vital part of the company’s mission to expand its customer base. The company is still building out its securities lending platform, which could generate incremental revenue. In the face of slowing trading activity, though—and that includes crypto in the third quarter, according to the company—it is hard to bank on significant per-user revenue growth in the near future.

So it will be Robinhood’s broad appeal that is most vital to justifying the price. That makes the IPO itself a pivotal moment. Robinhood will be distributing potentially over 20 million shares to its own customers via its own platform. If the deal doesn’t perform well out of the gate for any reason, that could frustrate some of its most engaged customers.

Investors might have to wait for the dust to settle on this offering before thinking about nabbing any Robinhood stock for themselves.

The brokerage app Robinhood has transformed retail trading. WSJ explains its rise amid a series of legal investigations and regulatory challenges as it looks forward to its IPO. Photo illustration: Jacob Reynolds/WSJ

Write to Telis Demos at telis.demos@wsj.com

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