Private vs. Public Company: An Overview

Privately held companies are—no surprise here—privately held. This means that, in most cases, the company is owned by its founders, management, or a group of private investors. A public company, on the other hand, is a company that has sold all or a portion of itself to the public via an initial public offering (IPO), meaning shareholders have a claim to part of the company's assets and profits.

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Explaining Publicly and Privately Held Companies

Private Companies

The popular misconception is that privately held companies are small and of little interest. In fact, there are many big-name companies that are also privately held—check out the Forbes list of America's largest private companies, which includes big-name brands like Mars, Cargill, Fidelity Investments, Koch Industries, and Bloomberg.

A private company can't dip into the public capital markets and must rely on private funding.

While a privately held company can’t rely on selling stocks or bonds on the public market in order to raise cash to fund its growth, it may still be able to sell a limited number of shares without registering with the SEC, under Regulation D. This way, privately held companies can use shares of equity to attract investors. Of course, privately held companies can also borrow money, either from banks or venture capitalists, or rely on profits to fund growth.

The main advantage of private companies is that management doesn't have to answer to stockholders and isn't required to file disclosure statements with the SEC. However, a private company can't dip into the public capital markets and must, therefore, turn to private funding. It has been said often that private companies seek to minimize the tax bite, while public companies seek to increase profits for shareholders.

Public Companies

The main advantage public companies have is their ability to tap the financial markets by selling stock (equity) or bonds (debt) to raise capital (i.e., cash) for expansion and other projects. Bonds are a form of a loan that a publicly held company can take from an investor. It will have to repay this loan with interest, but it won’t have to surrender any shares of ownership in the company to the investor. Bonds are a good option for public companies seeking to raise money in a depressed stock market. Stocks, however, allow company founders and owners to liquidate some of their equity in the company, and relieve growing companies of the burden of repaying bonds.

Key Differences

One of the biggest differences between the two types of companies is how they deal with public disclosure. If it's a public U.S. company, which means it is trading on a U.S. stock exchange, it is typically required to file quarterly earnings reports (among other things) with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). This information is made available to shareholders and the public. Private companies, however, are not required to disclose their financial information to anyone, since they do not trade stock on a stock exchange.

Key Takeaways

  • In most cases, a private company is owned by the company's founders, management, or a group of private investors.
  • A public company is a company that has sold all or a portion of itself to the public via an initial public offering.
  • The main advantage public companies have is their ability to tap the financial markets by selling stock (equity) or bonds (debt) to raise capital (i.e., cash) for expansion and other projects.