Bear market mauls debutants

The talking heads at the Nasdaq and the New York Stock Exchange generally define a bear market as a 20% decline from the index’s highs. And, as anyone who picked up a weekend newspaper knows, the markets have officially slumped into bear territory since peaking last fall.

Of course, an index is made up of individual stocks, with some getting more roughed up than others. Oracle has basically traded flat since the Nasdaq meltdown began last October; Microsoft has matched the index’s decline; and VMware has been hammered, plunging nearly three times the Nasdaq decline over the same period. (Another way to look at the meltdown in shares of VMware: At its peak, VMware stock was worth roughly the same amount as a barrel of oil at current prices. Now, you’d have to pony up nearly three shares of VMware to trade for that same barrel of oil.)

With investors not willing to take a chance on shares of existing companies, what chance do the shares of largely unknown and entirely untested IPO candidates have? The short answer is ‘zilch.’ Actually, it’s somewhat of an academic question as there hasn’t been a VC-backed IPO since ArcSight floated on the Nasdaq four months ago. (As we’ve written in the past, we wouldn’t be surprised to see ArcSight get gobbled up, with Hewlett-Packard a logical buyer, in our view.)

With the IPO window closed, corporate acquirers have even more leverage in negotiations. (In other words, don’t expect transactions going off at a double-digit price-to-sales multiple, like IPO candidate EqualLogic got from Dell last November.) We’ve already seen Initiate Systems scrap its proposed offering and go hat-in-hand to a gaggle of investors. Meanwhile, a handful of other S-1s from other companies are gathering dust at the SEC. And we hardly expect any movement during the third quarter. Given the parched IPO market and corporate acquirers in the doldrums, it’s going to be a long, hot summer for a few of these IPO candidates.