Tech Bubble 2.0: How Price Driven Narratives and Return Chasing Behavior Have Created Unsustainably High Valuations for Late Stage Startups in Financial Markets
25 Pages Posted: 8 Jan 2021 Last revised: 11 May 2021
Date Written: December 31, 2020
A narrative that the largest companies in public markets (aka the Big Five - Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Google) were at one point all VC-backed unicorn startups and achieved their success by "blitzscaling" has propagated a belief that money-losing startups pursuing growth at any cost can offer investors a chance to replicate the Big Five’s outsized returns. In recent years this narrative has led to an explosion in unicorn startups, alongside increasing capital inflows entering into private late-stage startups as a whole.
New sources of capital flooding into private late-stage startup fundraising deals comes not just from VC funds but from “non-traditional” VCs, a group that includes mutual funds, hedge funds, sovereign wealth funds and corporations. Historically non-traditional VC investors focused more on stock market investing, but in recent years this group has increasingly participated directly in private market fundraising rounds of late stage startups as a strategy to boost reported returns. In doing so these investors have adopted the VC mindset for investment analysis, prioritizing near-term sales growth and potential for market dominance over profitability. This influx of capital has created an attractive environment for late stage startup fundraising, which has been a contributing factor to elevated valuation levels observed in the space by virtue of the common (but misleading) convention of substituting post-money value for fair value used by private market investors. This upward skew in valuations is a source of bias in the top line returns reported across this asset class, which further reinforces capital inflows to the space.
The consequence of the collective dynamics described above has been a positive feedback loop in valuations for late-stage VC-backed startups in private financial markets. In the last few years, VC-backed IPOs have been growing in frequency and size as public market investors are succumbing to price-driven narratives that rely heavily on VC-style investment analysis and less on traditional valuation methods based on normalized earnings and cash flows. This has created the situation where equity valuations for late-stage VC-backed startups have been bid up by speculation and have decoupled from their underlying business value.
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