Monday, November 2, 2015

Venture Capital and Rational Bubbles

This post continues my journey to explain the seemingly over priced, high risk and difficult to value venture capital market. It is well known that the empirical security market line is too flat compared to theory. This means higher risk-higher beta stocks have lower than predicted returns. Conversely, lower risk-lower beta stocks (just like the ones Warren Buffett favors) have higher than expected returns. This phenomenon is called betting against beta (BAB). Two possible reasons exist for its existence.

The first is based on leverage constraints facing institutional investors like pension and endowment funds. These investors are forced to reach for asset risk to satisfy their higher risk appetites. Furthermore, leverage constraints may impede margin and short sales ordinarily used to correct over pricing. Leverage constraints and aversion probably tightened following the great recession given the failures and near failures on many undercapitalized institutions like Lehman.

A second complementary explanation is provided by behavioral economics. The argument is as follows:

1)     Investors over weight low probability high payoff events-even those with negative expected values. A simple example is the lotto. The number of players spikes as the grand prize increases even though the winning odds fall even lower. The large unlikely payoff dominates the negative expected value. A technical explanation is players (investors?) prefer positive skew. This is especially true when the wager (investment?) is relatively small compared to investor’s overall wealth. Thus, as investor wealth tends to be pro-cyclical-so is the demand for lottery type investments like venture capital (IPOs and Private Equity as well).
2)     Two additional behavioral effects reinforce the above.
a)     Representativeness-investors focus on winners like Uber and hope their investments will be winners. They are ignoring the higher base rate failure of such investments.
b)     Overconfidence-even if investors realize “home runs” like Uber are rare they believe they possess special skill enabling them to spot “Ubers”.

Add to the above the difficult to value nature of venture investment and it is easy to see how investors can get carried away in a rational bubble.

A third more traditional factor underlying the current market is low interest rates. The Federal Reserve has keep rates artificially low following the great recessions hoping to stimulate the economy. This means projected cash flows are discounted at lower rates leading to higher values. Additionally, on the demand side, low rates forcec investors to search for higher nominal (non risk adjusted) yields by going further out on the risk curve.

Thus, the venture capital market may be experiencing a rational, albeit still dangerous, bubble.


No comments:

Post a Comment