I’ve been reading a lot of commentary recently on tech companies that took PPP loans during Covid. Was this right? What’s definitely not right is our government bailing out bloated corporations during the pandemic. If you believe in capitalism then we should let the free markets take their path and prune the weak. One would argue that this infusion of cash saved jobs. Not sure how true that ultimately will become in October when the stipulations attached to the loans disappear. I bet we’ll see more layoffs, lots of them. US airlines have already made announcements for layoffs as soon as they are legally able. So basically taxpayers have funded a short term experiment on borrowed time that was setup for failure from the beginning. Harvard economists agree, the program has had little impact on employment at small businesses to date.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about why much of the venture capital ecosystem hasn’t invested in innovation that could really help stem some of the challenges we are facing during this pandemic; areas around synthetic biology, contract tracing, vaccine development and even our antiquated unemployment systems. The fact that millions of Americans haven’t been able to access unemployment benefits due to systems that are 20-30 years old is mind boggling, especially when 75% of venture capital dollars goes to software that ultimately could alleviate these challenges. The main culprit: Privatization of US innovation.
Back in October of 2019, I wrote a piece on how all the value creation was essentially being captured in the private markets and retail investors were being left out. It wasn’t always this way (think Amazon or Neflix’s IPO). Over the last 3-5 years, startups have been staying private longer as late stage capital keeps funneling in. Blame traditional firms like TRowe and Fidelity, and Softbanks massive Vision fund among others, for providing the cash. Venture has always been an alternative asset class and fund managers are seeking growth in areas outside of traditional channels.
I love to travel so when an opportunity comes up I head somewhere international. This year, my trip was to Peru which I had never visited before. As the Coronavirus pandemic was just building in early March, I started to think will my fight be cancelled for March 10th. In the week prior, I had started to see people buying hand sanitizer but for the most part things were calm and it was just another day commuting on the subway in New York. The idea of social distancing didn’t exist and virtually no one wore face masks. So the night before my flight, I made a final decision that I was going to go.
As Amazon took off here in the US, another similar startup business took its sights on the Far East. Alibaba may look similar to AMZN but under the hood they are very different. While AMZN handily beats BABA on top-line, BABA wins by a large measure on opex margins. This is inherent in their business model which is more similar to Ebay than to AMZN. Whereas AMZN primarily owns warehouses and inventory, BABA is lighter and collects a merchant fee as a middleman between buyers and sellers.