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private market froth-iness

11 Feb

While it’s not clear there is a bubble yet, some of the private market valuations I’ve seen are bubble-icious. My evidence is more anecdotal since I’m not an “on the ground” venture capitalist. But here is something from Fred Wilson, offering a good overview from a very credible source that there is a froth in the private markets. Money is sloshing around the bathtub, and I’d argue it’s spilling over into all asset classes.

Remember W.B.: “The first rule of investing: Don’t lose money. The second rule: Don’t forget Rule #1.” Remember the downside, grasshopper.


15 Dec

It strikes me today that optimism in the professional investment community remains at a relatively low level. Why? Out-of-control government spending. The $1.4 trillion federal deficit. $13 trillion in national debt. Eurozone economic concerns and the implications for the future of the euro currency. Not to mention the Federal Reserve’s actions which could spur inflation. The potential for an abrupt rise in interest rates. Rising commodity prices. The rise of China and India as competitors to the U.S. An equity market still meaningfully below its 2007 highs.

Many of the above are valid concerns and indeed are areas that need work. The equity markets today are implying decade ahead returns around 5%, certainly not a place to take unmitigated risk. Interest rates are low (but rising), benefiting borrowers/spenders at the expense of savers. The volume of the above factors is loud and the focus on them disproportionately high among investors and the public at large. They can lead us to forget a couple of things.

First, most of them we can’t control. We simply can’t, other than through elected officials, reduce government spending. We can, however, get ourselves into better financial shape through our own actions and position ourselves for worse economic times through higher savings, for instance.

Furthermore, these things tend to work on one way or another. Let’s take it to the extreme and say that government debt continues to rise and short-term interest rates go to 10.0%. With the government rolling over roughly a third of its total debt each year we’re looking at another $300 billion in interest expenses each year just on short-term debt. Say we print money and devalue the dollar in world markets to pay for this extra debt. Interest rates rise across the country, prices rise for consumers and unemployment rises dramatically. We couldn’t have stopped it, but we could have assets invested and liquid assets available to ameliorate the personal impact. Okay, enough of that since it detracts from what I’m really trying to say.

That is, in the fog of our short-term focus on the above issues and the maddening tendencies of the media to bloviate about them 24/7, we forget the ingenuity of the U.S. spirit and what’s going on in the entrepreneurial community today.

At this point, startups are being created like wildfire and funding is rabid. Several prominent venture capitalists have declared that there could be a bubble forming in early-stage technology companies, especially so-called Web 2.0 companies. I’ve heard many write and speak about the prices at which early funding rounds are taking place. Apparently, they’re not grounded in reality at this point and to some it “feels” like 1998-1999 again. (However, there are certain fundamental differences that differentiates this period from then. I may touch on this at a later date, but it mostly relates to valid business models and actual earnings.)

Anecdotally, it’s becoming more prevalent to see local articles about new companies being started dealing with the tech space. I’m encouraged by these signs. Let me point out that first and foremost I am a value investor. I try and figure out the stream of cash flows (both positive and negative) that can be expected over the life of an investment and discount it at an appropriate interest rate. Startups don’t have the luxury of much visibility on this front and so I haven’t (not yet, at least) invested in them. Also, I understand macro and micro-economics that makes me reticent about trying to pick winners.

Surely, there is no way that all startups receiving attention and/or funding today can reach the level of the most popular examples – such as Groupon, Twitter and Facebook. It doesn’t work like that. Many, if not most, won’t survive another year. As Warren Buffett has said, first come the innovators, then the imitators, then the idiots. Probably a lot of the incremental funding is coming from those in the third category and when the level of sophistication falls, so does the quality of the overall pool.

My broader point can get lost in the micro discussion, so I’ll finish here. Just because the effects of competition will ensure that most of these businesses fail (90% as goes the statistic?), the activity speaks to an entrepreneurial spirit that is alive and well in this country. And it’s a spirit that will endure in spite of the broad economic, fiscal, and monetary concerns that receive disproportionate attention in media coverage.

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