The market for initial public offerings surged early this year, with 31 deals raising $7.6 billion in the first quarter, but few young growth companies are cheering. The IPO market resembles a giant debt-swap in which private equity firms like Blackstone Group and Madison Dearborn Partners and corporate titans such as Pfizer are cashing in on a buoyant equity market to unload bulky assets. By contrast, few venture capital-backed companies are managing to go public.

On April 18, SeaWorld Entertainment priced a $702 million IPO after attempts to sell the company in the private market failed. In 2009, the $210 billion-in-assets Blackstone Group paid $2.3 billion to buy SeaWorld from multinational brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev. SeaWorld paid Blackstone a $100 million dividend in 2011, then took on additional debt in March 2012 to pay the firm an additional $500 million dividend. As part of the IPO, SeaWorld offered 10 million shares at $27 apiece, raising $245.4 million net of expenses. The company said it used the proceeds to pay down $177 million of debt and to pay Blackstone a $47 million fee for terminating a management advisory agreement. Blackstone and shareholders affiliated with it offered 16 million shares in the IPO.

More such deals could be in the offing as private equity funds come under pressure from their investors for increased capital distributions, market watchers say.

Meanwhile, the year got off to a dismal start for venture-backed IPOs, with activity falling to the lowest level in three years, according to the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA) and Thomson Reuters. Venture-backed IPOs raised only $672 million from eight offerings in the first quarter, a decline of 52 percent from the amount raised in the fourth quarter of 2012, and a decline in both deals and dollars raised in the first quarter of 2012. (In the first quarter of 2012, venture-backed IPOs raised $1.68 billion from 19 offerings.)
 “Political, taxation and sequestration concerns weighed even more heavily on the exit market for emerging growth companies,” noted John Taylor, head of research for the NVCA, in a press release from the Washington, DC-based venture capital trade group.

The performance of the quarter’s IPOs was lackluster. The average aftermarket return dropped to 4.9 percent from 11.2 percent in the first quarter of 2012, according figures compiled by Greenwich, Connecticut-based Renaissance Capital, an advisory firm that tracks IPOs and IPO markets. The average first day return declined to 12.6 percent from 18.4 percent a year earlier. And the average total return dropped to 18.3 percent from 32.2 percent in the first quarter of 2012.