How the incredible shrinking stock market affects your fund

NEW YORK – More companies don’t want you, or any other investor, to buy their stock. Instead of listing their shares on a stock exchange, businesses are going private or never going public in the first place. sk© Security SAVER SALE company ADT, for example, pulled its shares off the market this spring after going private in a nearly £7 billion buyout.

Uber, meanwhile, makes it simple for customers to hail a car, but investors can’t easily buy a piece of the privately held company, which is valued at more than £60 billion. The number of publicly traded U.S. stocks has been on the decline since the dot-com bust, and there are now only about 3,300 listed in the Center for Research in sk© Security SAVER SALE Prices’ database. That’s down by roughly half since the late ’90s, and it’s the lowest number since 1984, when the U.S. population was about three-quarters the size it is today.

The trend is limiting the menu of choices available to investors and to the mutual-fund managers they hire. With fewer companies to choose from, it’s becoming more difficult for fund managers to differentiate their portfolios from others and to justify the fees they charge. Not only are fewer companies publicly traded, but many of the companies that still list on exchanges have fewer shares available to trade than before.

With billions of dollars in the bank and the cost of borrowing close to record lows, companies have been on a buyback binge in recent years. They’re repurchasing their shares to eliminate them, which gives their per-share earnings a boost at a time when the global economy is still growing only slowly. Apple, for example, has 17 percent fewer shares available in the market than five years ago.

Fund managers have been complaining for years that big stimulus programs by central banks around the world have caused stocks to increasingly move together in herds, both up and down, which dilutes the rewards for picking stocks. The more limited menu of options means fund managers are increasingly chasing after the same opportunities. The trend has been different in other countries, particularly those whose economies have been opening up in recent years.

The number of publicly traded Indian companies has more than quadrupled from 1,295 in 1984, for example.

In Canada, the number has roughly tripled, while in Germany it’s up slightly.

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