What The Money Folks Are Saying

There’s a lot of noise about what’s happening the private startup market. It’s easy to just say X and Y are happening and read the headlines. Today, I got an email from Industry Ventures (IV), which acts as an LP into various VC funds and invests in “special situations.” They’re not known to most founders but sophisticated in their broader knowledge of the private and public markets and how funds are moving.

Their most recent post, titled “The Elephant In The Room: Hedge Funds and Mutual Funds,” can be read in its entirety here.

I wanted to draw out a few passages that caught my eye and draw a few conclusions from it. Before you consider this another saber-rattling post, please do see the points below and feel free to disagree and draw your own conclusions:

1/ Hedge fund and mutual fund involvement in the late-stage private sector has likely increased the number of “unicorns.” I guess we all sort of sense this by now, but IV writes specifically: “We believe growing mutual and hedge fund involvement has been one of the key drivers for the rise in the number of so-called unicorns—private firms with $1 billion-plus valuations…That said, the tide has recently shifted…When mutual funds and hedge funds cough, venture capital catches a cold.” For years, it’s been written VC money is fueling this price inflation. What if, in fact, it is also HFs and MFs, who have different objectives, and the companies themselves which accept this money?

2/ HFs and MFs are scaling back, but not going away. Writes IV: “[I]t appears more a matter of [HFs and MFs] being patient rather than losing interest, especially where they have dedicated pools of capital available for this type of investment.” So, this is interesting, they won’t “run for the hills” as many claim, but are taking a break to see how things shake out. Perhaps they want to make sure to avoid the situations which arose in 1/ above. Additionally, IV cites reports for HFs in particular that redemptions are up and could increase, sucking money out of the system further.

3/ The dislocation in private price vs public market prices could mean some companies simply collapse as a result of their own weight. Again, we all kind of sense that, but IV says it in a provocative manner: “Another concern is the fact that some of those investors we spoke with who dabble in private markets said they might not buy into the public offering of pre-IPO companies in which they had invested (assuming they do come to market). Depending on how widespread this view is, it could mean that the long awaited rebound in demand for small cap technology shares and IPOs is not yet at hand, further diminishing prospects for private-sector firms seeking a public exit.” Imagine any unicorn with a big HF or MF investor who, at the IPO, doesn’t buy more shares. It would be the mother of all signaling risks.

4/ M&A also could be impacted as private prices feel wrong to acquirers, who may elect to find comfort in public prices. As valuations got so high over the past few years, VCs and founders priced their companies beyond what the acquisition market would consider for their companies, thus shutting off one of two exits paths — the other path being IPO. As a result, we see more drive for liquidity in subsequent financing rounds, causing asynchronous liquidity events which potentially redistribute risk and reward unfairly. IV suggests that large acquiring companies wait and poach “smaller public companies, potentially creating pockets of demand that could be filled by private firms coming to market. That said, until IPO returns are seen as more attractive than those that have been garnered from investing in secondary issues, institutions have little incentive to step out of the publicly-traded safe zone.” This “safe-zone” is a way for the M&A market to gain leverage on price and, in doing so, call the bluff of their counterparts.

Whenever I write about the market like this, it is for me to internalize what I see on a daily basis and share that with you all. I do feel on this topic I have to add a disclaimer that I’m very optimistic about technology overall, that I am a very active investor and even invest in things that appear to be expensive. At the same time, I am trying to learn more about ecosystem overall and how market forces shape what we do. This post by IV does a good job of helping in that.