The term "public company" may also refer to a government-owned corporation. This meaning of a "public company" comes from the tradition of public ownership of assets and interests by and for the people as a whole (public ownership), and is the less-common meaning in the United States.
"Publicly owned company" can also have either meaning, although in the United Kingdom it will usually be interpreted as meaning a company in the public sector (being owned by national, regional or local government). The term "public limited company" or simply "PLC", as used in the UK and Ireland, refers to a form of incorporation, and does not imply anything about the ownership of the company.
In addition to being able to easily raise capital, public companies may issue their securities as compensation for those that provide services to the company, such as their directors, officers, and employees.
A private company also has several advantages. It has no requirement to publicly disclose much, if any financial information; such information could be useful to competitors. For example, Form 10-K is an annual report required by the SEC each year that is a comprehensive summary of a company's performance. Private companies do not file form 10-Ks. It is less pressured to "make the numbers"—to meet quarterly projections for sales and profits, and thus in theory able to make decisions that are best in the long-run. It spends less for certified public accountants and other bureaucratic paperwork required of public companies by government regulations. For example, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in the United States does not apply to private companies. The wealth and income of the owners remains relatively unknown by the public.
While private companies may also issue their securities as compensation for services, the recipients of those securities often have difficulty selling them on the open market. Securities from a public company typically have an established fair market value at any given time as determined by the price the security is sold for on the stock exchange where the security is traded. The financial media and city analysts will be able to access additional information about the business.
Yet, some companies choose to remain private for a long period of time after maturity into a profitable company. Investment banking firm Goldman Sachs and shipping services provider United Parcel Service (UPS) are examples of profitable companies which remained private for many years after maturing into profitable companies.
In addition, one publicly-owned company may be purchased by one or more publicly-owned company(ies), with the bought-out company either becoming a subsidiary or joint venture of the purchaser(s) or ceasing to exist as a separate entity, its former shareholders receiving either cash, shares in the purchasing company or a combination of both. When the compensation in question is primarily shares then the deal is often considered a merger. Subsidiaries and joint ventures can also be created de novo - this often happens in the financial sector. Subsidiaries and joint ventures of public companies are not generally considered to be considered private companies (even though they themselves are not publicly traded) and are generally subject to the same reporting requirements as publicly-traded companies. Finally, shares in subsidiaries and joint ventures can be (re)-offered to the public at any time - firms that are sold in this manner are called spin-outs.
Most industrialized jurisdictions have enacted laws and regulations that detail the steps that prospective owners (public or private) must undertake if they wish to take over a publicly-traded corporation. This often entails the would-be buyer(s) making a formal offer for each share of the company to shareholders. Normally some form of supermajority is required for this sort of the offer to be approved, but once it happens then usually all shareholders are compelled to sell at the agreed-upon price and the company either becomes a subsidiary, ceases to exist or becomes private.
The shares of a public company are often traded on a stock exchange. The value or "size" of a public company is called its market capitalization, a term which is often shortened to "market cap". This is calculated as the number of shares outstanding (as opposed to authorized but not necessarily issued) times the price per share. For example, a company with two million shares outstanding and a price per share of US$40 would have a market capitalization of US$80 million. However, a company's market capitalization should not be confused with the fair market value of the company as a whole since the price per share are influenced by other factors such as the volume of shares traded.
For example, if all shareholders were to simultaneously try to sell their shares in the open market, this would immediately create downward pressure on the price for which the share is traded unless there were an equal number of buyers willing to purchase the security at the price the sellers demand. So, sellers would have to either reduce their price or choose not to sell. Thus, the number of trades in a given period of time, commonly referred to as the "volume" is important when determining how well a company's market capitalization reflects true fair market value of the company as a whole. The higher the volume, the more the fair market value of the company is likely to be reflected by its market capitalization.
Another example of the impact of volume on the accuracy of market capitalization is when a company has little or no trading activity and the market price is simply the price at which the most recent trade took place, which could be days or weeks ago. This occurs when there are no buyers willing to purchase the securities at the price being offered by the sellers and there are no sellers willing to sell at the price the buyers are willing to pay. While this is rare when the company is traded on a major stock exchange, it is not uncommon when shares are traded over-the-counter (OTC). Since individual buyers and sellers need to incorporate news about the company into their decisions as to what prices they are willing to accept, a security with few buyers and sellers may have a market price that does not yet reflect the effect of such news, simply because those buyers and sellers are not yet aware of the news or have not yet figured out how it should affect the price.