Venture Capital Doesn't Need Government Help
The venture capital industry's chief lobbying group is arguing that VCs should get government help for their troubled industry. But new research suggests seasoned entrepreneurs don't need venture money to be successful and that venture backing may even impede innovation. Let's start with the lobbyists' report. On Apr. 29 the
(NVCA) released a "four-pillar" plan to resuscitate the moribund market for initial public offerings, including less regulation of public companies and new routes to market for private ones. On June 17 the NVCA called for the Obama Administration to exempt the venture capital industry from proposed new regulations.
After reading the press releases, one could be forgiven for coming away with the impression that a failure to help VCs would significantly harm chances of a U.S economic recovery. The group's April statement and its accompanying slides argue that U.S. job growth won't revive unless more companies can launch initial public offerings. "The revitalization of the venture-backed IPO market is critical to U.S. economic recovery and to the ongoing viability of America's competitiveness," the NVCA said.
It would be unwise to give venture capital firms what amounts to a government bailout. There's significant evidence that venture capitalists, with a few exceptions, don't add much value to the economy. Any sort of help that involves taxpayers' funds would be a waste of money.
A Steady Underperformer First off, the venture capital market actually needs to shrink—not grow. Venture capital as an asset class has underperformed the Russell 2000 index by about 10% in the past decade, according to a June 10 report by the , a philanthropic group that promotes entrepreneurship.
The NVCA cites statistics that say venture-backed companies, including superstars such as Microsoft ( (MSFT)), Apple ( (AAPL)), Google ( (GOOG)), and Starbucks ( (SBUX)), accounted for 10 million jobs and $2.1 trillion in revenue between 1970 and 2005.
But the Kaufmann report's author, Paul Kedrosky, points out that many other factors were at work. Those companies could have raised capital from other sources if they needed to, he said. The venture capital industry doesn't deserve any more credit for these companies than does , the Bay Area's power provider, according to Kedrosky.
Second, venture capital has become a less attractive investment for many pension funds and endowments, which often put a small percentage of their money into risky venture capital funds in hope of high returns. But Kedrosky's research shows a sharp deterioration in venture capital returns during the past five years, and he predicts steeper drops ahead. As a result, many institutional investors have become less sanguine about VC funds. Kauffman Foundation Chief Investment Officer Harold Bradley argued in a May 8 blog that most institutional investors and pension funds would be better off putting money earmarked for venture into an index or exchange-traded fund.
Finally, the venture capital industry overstates the impact of venture investors on entrepreneurs' success. My team at Duke University just completed a survey of 549 entrepreneurs who had started successful companies in high-growth industries. We found that only 8% of first-time entrepreneurs took venture funding. For those on their fourth startup, the percentage was 22%. That still means nearly four out of five seasoned entrepreneurs didn't need VCs' money or advice to be successful.
An Impediment to Innovation? The findings matched those in Kedrosky's paper. He analyzed Inc. magazine's list of the fastest-growing U.S. companies and found that only 16% of the 900 firms on the list took venture capital during the past decade.
Other research implies that venture funding isn't only unnecessary much of the time but also has a negative correlation to innovation. Last August, Masako Ueda, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison's business school, and Masayuki Hirukawa, a professor in the economics department at Northern Illinois University, examined the correlation between venture capital investments and productivity growth.
Professors Ueda and Hirukawa analyzed "total factor productivity" (TFP), a measure of innovation, as it applies to U.S. manufacturing industries including pharmaceuticals, computers, communications, electronics, and instruments. They found that VC investment lagged behind TFP growth by two years and that later rounds of VC investments actually caused a decline in TFP. In other words, venture capital slowed the innovation process.
The findings imply that VCs are far from indispensable in creating growing companies. Rather, they play a small role at best with fast-growing companies.
Many VCs I talk to also say few of their peers provide real value to the U.S. economy. They lament how their industry has become a haven for MBAs with no substantive operational experience in business but plenty of taste for IPOs. VCs say rapid growth in their industry has led to a less attractive pool of companies to invest in, and lower returns on those investments. While some top-tier VCs do provide real benefits to companies in their portfolios and thus create wealth, many are merely middlemen.
Washington needs to say no to the NVCA's entreaties. Rewarding rich VCs with tax and oversight breaks would be harmful to the economy, and an affront to self-made entrepreneurs. Instead, U.S. government and industry should examine ways to provide more direct support to the entrepreneurs who are the real forces behind economic growth.