eToys opened at $78 per share, which meant that Goldman’s clients were sitting on a profit of $475 million the minute that the stock started trading on the open market. In most cases, the clients cashed out — which was smart, because eToys didn’t stay at those levels for long. But if Goldman got back 40% of those profits in trading commissions, then it made $190 million in commissions, compared to that $11.5 million in fees.
If Goldman had raised the IPO price to $37 per share, then yes its fee income would have gone up by $10 million, to $21.5 million. But — assuming the stock would still have opened at $78 — its clients’ opening-tick profits would have come down to $336 million, and Goldman’s 40% share of that would also have come down, to $135 million. Total income to Goldman? $156.5 million, rather than $201.5 million. If the IPO price were higher, Goldman’s total take would have gone down by about $45 million.
All of these numbers are hypothetical, of course, but the bigger point is simple: if Goldman manages to get kickbacks, in terms of extra commissions, of more than 7% of its clients’ profits, then it has a financial incentive to underprice the IPO. And Goldman’s clients were desperate to give it kickbacks: they didn’t just route their standard trading through Goldman, since that wouldn’t generate enough commissions. Instead, they bought and sold stocks on the same day, at the same price. Capstar Holding, for instance, bought 57,000 shares in Seagram Ltd at $50.13 per share on June 21, 1999 — and then sold them, on the same day, at the same price. Capstar made nothing on the trade, but Goldman made a commission of $5,700. Capstar’s Christopher Rule says that in May 1999, fully 70% of all of his trading activity “was done solely for the purpose of generating commissions”, so that he could continue to keep on getting IPO allocations.
Goldman, of course, revealed none of this to eToys. Instead, they pitched eToys with a presentation saying, on its first page, in big underlined type, “eToys’ Interests Will Always Come First“.