A cliche I’ve heard many times is “Wall Street Always Wins.” The first week of 2016 in the public markets has been an entertaining reminder of this.
In 1998, when I started ending up with lots of shares in public Internet companies, I came up with a formulaic approach for any public equities that are distributed to me (either from our funds or other VC funds). The approach was mathematic, dispassionate, and easy for me to execute. Over the past 18 years this strategy served me well.
In 2002, I decided not to own any public company stocks except for companies that I directly invested in as private companies. I sold whatever remaining public company shares I still had post Internet bubble and took an entirely different approach to the public markets.
While I have still have plenty of public equity, it is through either index funds, equity fund managers that I have a long term relationship with, or a few companies that I invested in when they were private companies. And, for the last category (the shares I own personally), I still use the long-term formulaic approach I came up with in 1998.
I’m a big believer in the Bogle school of thought about owning the market, rather than trading stocks. As a result, I don’t have to pay attention to the public markets on a daily basis. Or a weekly basis. Or an monthly, quarterly, or annual basis. Or basically, at all. That lets me focus all of my mental energy on what I like and what I think I’m good at (which is not being a stock picker or trader.)
The first finance course I took at MIT was 15.401: Finance Theory I and was taught by Stewart Myers. I remember the cover of the textbook, fondly called Brealey and Myers, what the Capital Asset Pricing Model is, and a few other things. Even though my future business partner Dave Jilk told me that he enjoyed the finance classes he had taken, I didn’t, and after taking 15.402 (which was required for my masters degree), I was done with corporate finance after taking the final exam.
Except – not really – since a big part of my job is corporate finance, just for startups and fast growing companies. However, unlike the evolution of the 15.4xx finance classes, and the extreme amount of financial engineering and financial innovations (both good, bad, and questionable) that came out of MIT research and MIT professors, most of the math involved for a venture capitalist can be done in one’s head, as long as you are decent at arithmetic.
But, for some reason, I occasionally like reading about Wall Street and corporate finance. Some of it is akin to watching the inevitable train wreck that surfaces in books like The Big Short. Some of it is to try to understand human motivation and behavior in a sphere that I don’t encounter often. And some of it is just to learn something that, in some parallel universe, I might be participating in.
Flash Boys was a good capstone to the last week of wallowing in the global financial crisis of 2008, which I began by watching the movie The Big Short. Once again, Michael Lewis took a hard topic and made it accessible, fun, interesting, and character heavy. After reading the book and then poking around IEX, the alternative trading system at the center of the story, I got a fun bonus by discovering that Spark Capital and Bain Capital Ventures are both investors in IEX.
I’m probably done for a while reading about Wall Street. But, once again, after reading Flash Boys, the cliche “Wall Street Always Wins” rings true in my brain.
Yesterday I read Kara Swisher’s post What Does the Recent Tech Stock Downturn Mean? The Truth Is Nobody Knows. It’s great. Go read it – I’ll wait for you.
In the last two weeks there’s been a flurry of articles about the implications of a 25% decline in the public market value of a bunch of Internet stocks. They range from “the sky is falling” to “the IPO market window is closing” to “there will be more stupid television shows about Silicon Valley” (I prefer Game of Thrones and 24, thank you very much.)
As many of the Cylons from BSG are fond of saying, “All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.”
I remember a moment in time in 1997. We were in the middle of fundraising for Softbank Venture Capital (which became Mobius Venture Capital.) It was the first VC fund I’d helped raise. We probably had about $150m committed and were running around trying to get to $300m for what we had positioned as a dedicated Internet VC fund. I can’t remember the month, but I think it was in the summer, that all the public Internet stocks dropped a bunch (probably 25%). Suddenly every meeting we had turned cold with all of our potential LPs either asking how we were going to make money on the Internet or asserting that there was no way that we’d make money on the Internet. A few months later the public markets for Internet stocks turned around and we closed a $330 million fund which ended up doing extremely well.
In 1999 we filed an S-1 to take Sage Networks public. I was a co-founder and co-chairman. We were planning to go public in the early spring, but in February we acquired a company called Interliant which doubled our side. We had to grind through a refiling of our S-1 which cost us a month. We finally hit the road with the intention of going public by the end of April. Our underwriters (Merrill Lynch) told us not to worry that the SEC hadn’t cleared our filing yet – they always did it a few days before you went public. I spent three weeks on a road show with our president and CFO building the book. Day after day passed and we didn’t hear from the SEC. Two days before we were supposed to price, the book was 10x oversubscribed and our $9 – $11 price looked like it could move up meaningfully. They day we were supposed to price we still hadn’t heard from the SEC. “Don’t worry” said the banker at Merrill Lynch, “We’ll get it done.” The next day, when we were supposed to be trading, a fax came through from the SEC. It was 20 pages long and had about a month’s worth of work to pull together on the F-pages of the filing (we had acquired 20 companies.) That night we all drank a lot of scotch – we knew the IPO wasn’t going to happen that week and we’d just wasted a road show. I remember being completely numb the next day as I flew home from NY to Boulder, not completely understanding how we had just blown the IPO.
A few weeks later Internet stocks started to fall. I vaguely recall that eBay was one of the bellwethers at the time and I think it had a big drop. Suddenly the IPO market window closed. No one was interested in Internet stocks, let alone one that was being tortured by the SEC for accounting disclosure on a bunch of acquisitions of tiny companies.
At the end of June I went to Italy for a week vacation with my wife Amy and my parents. We did a walking trip which I remember being wonderful – 10 miles a day finished off with lots of food and wine in a beautiful Italian countryside. No phones, no email. Until Thursday, when I got a call at the villa we were staying at from one of my board members who said “you have to come home right now.” I responded with “I’m flying home Sunday and will be back on Monday.” He said, “No – now – the road show starts again Monday and you have to be at the printer on Saturday to sign off on the filing.”
I scrambled to find a flight home from the middle of Italy, got to NY by Saturday mid-day, re-started the road show on Monday, and we were public by the end of the week. We went out at $10 and traded up to $15. When I checked the market indexes, they were basically the same as they were two months earlier before things dropped.
Lots of folks are going to pontificate about what is going on in the public markets. Most have an agenda or a vested interest.
If you are an entrepreneur, ignore the pontification and go build your business. Pay attention to the dynamics in the macro, since they will impact you, but don’t get caught up in. Don’t create a narrative to justify something that is going on. Focus on the reality – your reality – and do your best operating in the context in which you can’t control.
All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.