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March 21st, 2007:

VC Essential Tensions: Momentum vs. Contrarianism

It is my intention to begin a series of entries dealing with “essential tensions” in investing in general and VC in particular. This is the first of the series.

Venture capital as an industry deals with momentum investing. Paul Kedrosky has argued on his Infectious Greed blog that VC is a “bubble business,” and that venture returns, when they’re good, come from momentum-fueled exit events. This is an argument where the counterexamples are the exception that proves the rule: Google’s IPO (unimpeachably a deal that stands on its own merits rather than a momentum exit) stands out for having decisively ended the exit drought that had plagued the industry since 2001. Indeed, GOOG going out kicked off the recent positive-momentum exit cascade that gathered steam throughout 2006.

Likewise, on the “entry” side of new financings, momentum tends to rule the day (especially when exit momentum “spills over” into fundraising and new financing activity). See, for example, the cavalcade of YouTubettes that have been trotted out, freshly funded and hoping to hit warp 10 and slingshot off the perceived stellar performance of online video and user-generated content. (Indeed, it would take some backwards time-travel for most of these to capture any fraction of the value in that particular space.)

It is easy self-righteously to laugh at the absurdity of funding 30 YouTubes. But if we accept whole-heartedly the ad absurdum version of Kedrosky’s argument, we can’t blame VCs for believing in momentum. After all: if folks today are buying online video companies, then the savvy VC better have one to sell.

But investing is not a game played alone, and contrary to the bluff and bluster of some VCs, no deal is “binary.” Every deal is implicitly an auction, with a bid and an ask, and the formula for investment return is ancient and venerable: buy low, sell high. Momentum helps with the latter, but crushes our ability to do the former. Apart from the occasionally perverse incentives provided by large, fixed fund sizes, pricing going in is even more leveraged in ROI than pricing coming out. Getting into a good deal at an attractive price — and hence, the longer lever on ROI — depends on a virtue diametrically opposed to momentum, namely, contrarianism.

The contrarian looks for undervalued purchasing opportunities by ignoring or subverting the prevailing wisdom of the day. He makes it his job to call the tops or bottoms of markets, and sometimes is the one declaiming the emperor’s nudity. An occupational hazard of this is that sometimes, the market has a ways to go yet, and occasionally the emperor still has flesh-colored tights on — and early is the same as wrong when timing markets.

Certainly, if there is a mythical hero of venture capitalism, it is the steel-nerved visionary contrarian who makes what looks like a long-shot bet, boldly doubling down when others are fearful, and propelling forward great companies and great technologies that nobody else dared touch (and hence, that he invested in on the cheap). Where else do we get the nerve lionizing our asset class as “venture?”

So, we are faced with a contradiction between the mythology of our industry and the harsh reality. You don’t get to be both the visionary contrarian and still have the online video portfolio company. Why do so many venture firms seem to choose momentum in this tradeoff?

I have two theories. One is that, although entry price has more theoretical leverage over ROI than does exit value, exits are so much more visible that they dominate the consciousness of most VCs. That is, given the implicit opportunity to make a 8x ROI on, say, a $60 M exit, or to make a 2.5x on a $500 M exit, and assuming that the probabilities and amounts are adjusted to keep other comp and performance measures ceteris paribus, I bet that VC decision processes are strongly skewed to the big dollar, highly visible exit. Half-billion IPOs are much better bragging fodder at the VC confabs than mid-market M&As, even though the latter may well pay off better. This would be a great master’s or Ph.D. thesis if one could substantiate and measure the value of this skew.

The second theory is a general theory for understanding why contrarianism, itself, is “meta-contrarian” (that is, why contrarianism is selected against as an investing style). I call this the “rich friends theory.” I use it to explain why, despite all rationality, U.S. investors tend to overweight U.S. equities in their portfolios. In a nutshell the theory is this: it sucks far worse to miss out on an investment opportunity that all your friends have scored on, than it does to miss out on an equally profitable opportunity that everyone else missed, too. Put another way, it’s awesome to get richer than your friends, but it’s way worse to get much poorer than them. Thinking of this “peer-relative risk aversion” helps to understand a lot of bubble / momentum dynamics. This, too, would be fascinating to measure, although I can reasonably set a lower bound here of 0.7% skew toward the crowd, which is the “rich friends tax” you pay in incremental house edge at craps by playing the pass line (the “do’s,” where most players play, has a house edge of 1.41%) vs. the don’t pass line (the”don’ts,” almost diametrically opposed to the do’s, where winning earns you enmity and losing earns you jeers from your fellow punters, has a house edge of 1.40%).

There’s also a case to be made that emerging managers hew more closely to the herd because it could be an existential crisis to a firm for its first fund to be a “fourth quartile” performer. Much better for a new firm to post median returns and live to raise more funds, than for it to risk lagging returns on a series of contrarian bets (better, that is, for the firm, if not for its investors, who may in fact be better served by the longer-shot odds). This is, of course part of the “tyranny of IRR,” about which I have another blog entry under preparation.

I wish I could say that understanding, or even measuring, these effects gives you some kind of instant edge in investing. But, alas, this is a perfect example of the occasional frustrating impotence of mere understanding. (I do have some ideas for exploiting this particular case, but those obviously aren’t public.)