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Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Replaying the "Greater Fool" theory 15 years later

From the “Heard on the Street” section of this morning’s Wall Street Journal:
Testing Silicon Valley’s Greater-Fool Strategy Lofty valuations for venture-backed companies like Uber and Snapchat depend on the stock-market off-ramp staying open

There are 65 venture-capital backed companies in the U.S. valued at $1 billion or more, by The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones VentureSource’s latest count. That is more than half again as many of these so-called unicorns as a year ago.

Even by the standards of rapidly growing companies aiming to go public, they are hardly cheap. Uber tops the list with a valuation of $41.2 billion, and that looks like it is heading higher. … In second, at $16 billion, is Snapchat, which has only recently begun generating revenue. …

Overall, private valuations are about as high now as during the dot-com bubble, according to research firm Sand Hill Econometrics. One reason valuations are so lofty: In an era when generating outsize returns has been extremely difficult, big investors who previously would have tended to take a position in a company on its IPO are instead jumping into late private-funding rounds.

[T]he list of tech companies with deep pockets and a desire for acquisitions is pretty short, and the fit needs to be right. So for most big venture-backed companies an IPO is a likelier exit. But the public market’s ability to absorb those companies may be limited.

Sand Hill estimates the total value of U.S. venture-backed companies came to about $750 billion at the end of 2014. That is equal to 2.5% of the total market capitalization of U.S. public companies, according to Federal Reserve data. The only other time venture-backed companies were valued that highly relative to the stock market was in the second quarter of 2000, when the dot-com bubble began to rapidly deflate.

Indeed, one pin in that bubble was the flow of shares of speculative companies into the market. Until late 1999, the availability of dot-com shares was limited, with many held off the market by insiders subject to lockup agreements.

From November 1999 to April 2000, though, the amount of unlocked shares rose to $270 billion from $70 billion, as economists Eli Ofek and Matthew Richardson documented [in their 2003 Journal of Finance article]. This increased the float in dot-com companies to the point there weren’t enough investors willing to pay up for them.
This is interesting on two levels. First, the Web 2.0 stock bubble is now shaping up to burst like the one 15 years later. A crash in valuations will be bad for entrepreneurs seeking funding in the next 3-5 years. As my business plan students (at both KGI and UCI) could explain, potential exit valuations influence (if not determine) the valuation for even the earliest seed stage or Series A round.

However, this time the question is whether the bubble will burst before or after the companies go public. The VCs and investment bankers — as well as the founder and employees of these overvalued companies — would clearly prefer to IPO in hopes of finding a “greater fool.” The buyers of these frothy shares would be betting that they’re not the fool, but instead they can sell to one.

The “greater fool” theory is not new. While Wikipedia (that fount of all truth and wisdom) is not much help, Investopedia helpfully provides a definition for that term:
Greater Fool Theory

A theory that states it is possible to make money by buying securities, whether overvalued or not, and later selling them at a profit because there will always be someone (a bigger or greater fool) who is willing to pay the higher price.

When acting in accordance with the greater fool theory, an investor buys questionable securities without any regard to their quality, but with the hope of quickly selling them off to another investor (the greater fool), who might also be hoping to flip them quickly. Unfortunately, speculative bubbles always burst eventually, leading to a rapid depreciation in share price due to the selloff.
As an entrepreneur, I always had trouble with this approach by other entrepreneurs — and even more so, by the financial professionals who prepare these stock offerings. I realize the stakes are high for the founders and investors holding this illiquid shares — particularly at the tail end of a surge in valuations — but doesn’t excuse succumbing to the corrupting influence of this pressure. Caveat emptor doesn’t isn’t enough to excuse offering shares with no financial basis for their valuation other than market mania.

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