UK: AIM Market — Fit For Purpose?

Last Updated: 9 January 2012
Article by Andrew Peddie

Courtesy of the Thames Valley Business Magazine July/August 2011.

It has become increasingly commonplace for commentators to cast doubt on the effectiveness of the AIM market. Since the start of the current financial turmoil, prior to which the number of new entrants to the market boomed, there has been a significant slump in primary issues and fundraisings on AIM. This has of course coincided with a downturn in the global economy and the resulting drain on the cash available for investment in the UK, but does the problem run deeper than that?

When AIM was launched in 1995 it sought to provide a platform for smaller and growing companies, providing them with liquidity and access to capital on a global scale. This made AIM a very popular choice for small and medium sized companies looking for growth and for investors looking for an exit route. Over the last 15 years the success of the AIM market has shown why it is important to have a strong, functioning junior stock market in the UK and it has become a model for other stock markets across the financial world.

Most growing companies reach a point in their development when they need access to more capital. Frequently they will turn to venture capital or private equity funding to obtain it. Any such investors typically will be looking to exit that investment in a three to five year timescale, often dictated by the lifespan of the funds which they in turn have raised from external investors. Although the growth of a secondary and tertiary buy out market over the years has meant that has become a very serious alternative, and a trade sale to a competitor is in many cases another option, an IPO onto AIM or the full list is one of the classic exit routes.

If this IPO exit route is increasingly closed out, it reduces the exit options for those investors. Given how important the financial investor sector has been to the UK economy over the last two decades, this in itself is a reason to try to address some of the problems that AIM has been experiencing. It is even more pressing because of the issues that currently dog the debt funding market. As we know, many banks (both UK and international) are busy focusing on strengthening their own balance sheets following the 2008 credit crisis (and given the sovereign debt risk that is still out there in much of Europe) rather than on new lending to corporates. Therefore, the number of avenues for corporates to seek new capital to grow their businesses is further reduced.

So what has gone wrong and why have we seen an increase trend in de-listings and alternative investment routes? In some ways AIM has been a victim of its own success. Sold on a brochure of lighter regulation, access to international investors providing increased visibility and profile and the badge of being a listed company, entrants to market have not been hard to find in the good times. Now that investment capital is limited, is the market is self regulating the quality of successful applicants as investors become more selective or cautious about where they invest their money? Is there a danger that this self regulation will disappear when the equity taps begin to open again and how should this be addressed? Alternatively is it the cost of regulation that is putting off growth companies these days from going down the IPO route?

More emphatic regulation by the London Stock Exchange both of AIM market companies and their Nominated Advisors would be welcomed in some quarters to counteract any reputational damage sustained over recent years and further improve the quality of market applicants. In order to achieve this any such regulation could make it harder to get an inappropriate company onto the market, or make the consequences for failures to meet minimum standards more severe. The fear amongst the investment community is however that over regulation may strike at the heart of what AIM is about and further dampen the appetites for IPOs.

Whilst greater regulation is a cornerstone of a sound financial market, it is unlikely to address all of the issues currently facing AIM. There has been some discussion as to whether the UK Government should give further tax incentives to those making AIM investments. While this seems unlikely in the current economic climate, encouraging a broader mix of investors into AIM, which is still dominated by investment funds, would certainly be likely to increase the range of investors and liquidity in the market generally, thereby reviving the market.

Whilst it is true that if nothing is done to turn the AIM market around, it may continue to slide in popularity and that would be to the detriment of UK industry, particularly at the medium sized company level, many of the problems faced by AIM are not of its own doing and the solution should not be found in tinkering with the market. Medium sized companies need access to long term, reliable sources of capital. The absence in the UK of a banking system like the German regional banks, who support these types of companies over the long run, means companies, who are not FTSE 350 size, but have long outgrown friends and family and business angel funding, do need a functioning junior public market as an alternative. Regulation coupled with tax breaks can be a good thing where market regulation fails, but on their own they will not change market sentiments. Confidence is slowly returning and advisors are reporting an upturn in AIM related instructions. Now is the time for investors in AIM to lead the way, allowing medium sized companies to access capital, grow and succeed, providing confidence to other sectors in the economy. Of course we could just create a new regional banking structure – but that is another challenge altogether.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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