Could another tech bubble be about to burst?

We are in the late stages of a credit cycle, with too much money chasing too little value

Uber’s pitch at Davos  had a whiff of desperation. Photograph: Laura Dale/PA Wire

Uber’s pitch at Davos had a whiff of desperation. Photograph: Laura Dale/PA Wire


There were many disconnects between last week’s World Economic Forum and the real world. One of the most notable was the techno-optimism displayed by many participants, which was in sharp contrast to what the markets themselves are expecting from the technology sector this year.

The coming spate of initial public offerings in particular looks shaky. Uber’s chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi was all over Davos, talking up the company’s forthcoming initial public offering. But the talk had a whiff of desperation. Uber, along with Lyft and a host of other large, still-private tech companies such as Slack and Airbnb, are likely to try to go public sooner rather than later — not only because of worries about a coming recession and volatile markets, but because they have grown so fat on private funding, it is unclear whether the market will be able to sustain their valuations. (Uber’s, for example, is pegged at $100bn.) They want to get their money while the getting is good.

It is a situation that is both similar, and not, to the dotcom boom and bust that occurred at the turn of the century. Back then, I was working in venture capital in London. Companies like the now-defunct, LVMH-backed online retailer — the of Europe — were spending millions on glossy ads, and would-be entrepreneurs were trolling for easy money at First Tuesday networking events. Remember those little red-for-investor or green-for-talent lapel dots everyone had to wear?

Then, as now, we were at the late stages of a credit cycle, with too much money chasing too little value. And then, like now, investors were counting on a spate of hot IPOs to pour a little more kerosene on markets that were clearly over-inflated. We all know how that ended, on both sides of the Atlantic.

That is not to say that there wasn’t value created then, as there has been now. For every unsuccessful dog food retailer or expensive T-shirt purveyor that went out of business in the dotcom bust, there were miles of broadband cable laid, which created the infrastructure that companies such as Google now capitalise on. Today, the sharing economy has markets and conveniences where before there were none.

The real difference between the two eras is in the capital markets themselves. Venture money collapsed post-2000, came back up, fell again after the financial crisis, then rebounded to record levels after 2014. The number of new start-ups has proliferated. Yet the number of IPOs has fallen. This is due to a paradox — while technology has made starting a company cheaper, becoming a success is now more expensive. That is because of an arms race to build the next “unicorn” start-up, one with a market capitalisation of over $1bn.

As University of California academics Martin Kenney and John Zysman put it in a forthcoming paper on the shifts in start-up funding, entitled “Unicorns, Cheshire Cats, and the New Dilemmas of Entrepreneurial Finance”, “start-ups are each trying to ignite the winner-take-all dynamics through rapid expansion characterised by breakneck and almost invariably money-losing growth, often with no discernible path to profitability”.

Over the past five or so years, there’s been a massive growth in the number of venture-capital-backed unicorns. Companies such as Uber, Lyft, Spotify, and Dropbox can lose money hand over fist, and yet still continue to grow in valuation. Indeed, it is all part of the new business dynamic.

Low barriers to entry result in many competitors and a race to spend as much as possible to grab market share. Not only do the private companies that emerge from this unproductive cycle become bloated, so too do the venture funds themselves. Billion-dollar venture funds, once unheard of, are now commonplace. Last year, Sequoia raised an $8bn seed fund, and SoftBank a whopping $100bn fund.

Big, of course, begets big. As more and more heavyweight VCs bid up the value of start-ups, others have to follow. It’s up or out. The result has been not only a new bubble in IPO markets, but the undercutting of a host of public companies that actually have to worry about profits. The classic examples would be Uber’s disruption of the taxi industry, or Airbnb’s of hotels.

This may be good for some of the VCs who can use the inflated values of unicorns on their books to raise more money and charge more management fees. But I can’t see how it is good for economic value overall. Massive debt financing of unprofitable firms to create monopolies might benefit some entrepreneurs and investors, but it distorts capital and labour markets and is anti-competitive.

As long as investors are willing to accept growth as a metric for value, the music can keep playing. But as the University of California academics note, “unicorns are mythical beasts”. This year, their financial reality, as well as the sustainability of the current funding model, will be subject to some much-needed testing.

Some of the new crop of hyped-up companies may eventually turn into Cheshire cats, disappearing and leaving behind only the grins of those who got out before the bubble burst. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019