Are the Short-Term Profit Motives and Wall Street-like Investing under the Influence, Trumping Long Term Innovation in the Silicon Valley?

6 06 2010

 

When the Wall Street gets drunk, the tax payers get a collective hangover [1].  When Silicon Valley Venture Capitalists start investing in coffee shops in India [2], will the entrepreneurs, who are this country’s best hope in creating jobs, get a severe migraine?

According to Joseph Schumpeter, the patron saint of innovation, entrepreneurs are the agents of innovation and creative destruction.  With their creative and restless quest for new approaches, they displace old products and processes with better ones often causing massive disruption to the equilibrium of economic tranquility.  The Silicon Valley Venture Capitalists institutionalized the process of creative destruction by developing the financial backbone and the economies of scale to overcome the associated risk.

According to Wikipedia “A core skill within VC is the ability to identify novel technologies that have the potential to generate high commercial returns at an early stage. By definition, VCs also take a role in managing entrepreneurial companies at an early stage, thus adding skills as well as capital (thereby differentiating VC from buy out private equity firms which typically invest in companies with proven revenue), and thereby potentially realizing much higher rates of returns. Inherent in realizing abnormally high rates of returns is the risk of losing all of one’s investment in a given startup company. As a consequence, most venture capital investments are done in a pool format where several investors combine their investments into one large fund that invests in many different startup companies. By investing in the pool format the investors are spreading out their risk to many different investments versus taking the chance of putting all of their money in one start-up firm.”

However, it seems that all is not well in the Silicon Valley.

“What’s intriguing is how that strategy has evolved, and where U.S. Venture capitalists are finding the big wins.  Forget the next iPod, or Facebook.  The firms succeeding in India are doing so with some very un-Silicon Valley-like investments.  Think toll roads.  Think coffee shops.  Think insurance companies.” 

These remarks from Chris O’brien [2] sound very alarming given the raison d’être for  venture capital firms is to invest in long-term high-risk high-gain strategies and not conventional short-term profit-making ventures.  According to Answers.com, the venture capital is money made available for investment in innovative enterprises or research, especially in high technology, in which both the risk of loss and the potential for profit may be considerable. 

Unfortunately, it seems that the current day VCs, while considering themselves as the high-priests of innovation, are not only not able to identify “novel technologies that have potential to generate high commercial returns”, but also they are plundering valuable investment capital available to them with substantial tax advantages compared to other investment firms, by looking at coffee shops and toll-roads in India for profits.

“Many VCs say their specialized financial industry merits special treatment in the private equity field because it makes long-term, high-risk investment vital to job creation.”  With this observation, Scott Duke Harris discusses current efforts by the venture capital firms to fight current government efforts to change the way the “carried interest” fee is taxed [3].

It is a good time to examine the relevance of the VC firms and their compensation in the times of large unemployment, dwindling resources and severe pay cuts elsewhere.  Where is the capital best utilized? Is it in creating innovation and paradigm shifts in the US or in coffee shops in India even with high profits?  How is a VC different from other investment firms looking for high return?

Why Does Innovation Matter?

The following extract from David A. Hounshell [4] clearly explains not only why innovation matters but also differentiates the impact of creative destruction from the conventional competitive capitalism.

“So why is innovation important? One way to answer this question is to go back to a classic paper published in 1957 by Robert Solow, an economist at MIT, entitled “Technical Change and the Aggregate Production Function” (Review of Economics and Statistics ). Solow was one of the first major economists of the postwar period to examine technological change seriously. In this paper, he studied the sources of productivity growth, looking over U.S. history, and concluded that when he accounted for all the increases in land, labor, and capital inputs and overall productivity growth, only about 40 percent of this growth could be explained with conventional economic input factors. Less than half of the productivity growth in American history could be accounted for through normal means—i.e., the means employed under competitive capitalism in Schumpeterian terms. The other 50-60 percent of productivity growth has come to be known as the “Solow residual.” Solow argued that technological change essentially constituted this residual. Technological change—distinct from simple increased inputs of land, labor, and capital—thus was a principal source of economic growth. This phenomenon in economic growth had not been formally recognized by any economist to date, although had Schumpeter been living in 1957, he surely would not have found Solow’s conclusions surprising.  Schumpeter would have said, “yes, this residual is a measure of the product of the perennial gale of creative destruction, which stems fundamentally from innovation.” Solow won the first Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for his work, which has become a basic building block of economists’ work in economic growth theory ever since.”

The technology of creative destruction requires an entrepreneur with vision, tolerance for high risk and a thick-skin to keep persisting against all odds in an environment of competitive capitalism that attempts to suppress drastic changes to the status-quo.  The S-curve shown in figure 1 describes the three phases of innovation characterized by the return on investment.

The incubating phase where the return on investment is almost zero can only flourish with investments that have a high risk-tolerance.  Traditionally, Government institutions, universities and some large companies with vision and long-term focus have participated in developing and incubating ideas that are considered as a long-shot.  Occasionally, rich patrons who have made their money in traditional ways have indulged in incubating technologies.   On the other hand the VC’s are interested in the emerging technologies because the technologies show promise of creative destruction and associated big profits that could result from changing the game.  In order to compete with the status-quo that will attempt to stifle emerging technologies that threaten their profits, and to create the eco-systems that are required to scale and demonstrate the value of the new paradigm, the entrepreneur needs  investment, expertise and the global access that organized investment by the VC community brings.  In the past, the Silicon Valley VCs played that role very successfully with the right bets on disruptive technologies.  However, as the rising tide of their success floated all boats and created a new generation of VCs, the tide seem to have changed from emphasis on vision, disruption, and 10X improvements in productivity to incremental gains, less risk, and dubious business models such as the one that gives free software supported by labor and knowledge intensive human services that have proven not to scale time and again. 

The return on investment to improve mature technologies is poor.  Process improvements bring mostly incremental improvements in deploying mature technologies.  Investment in coffee shops brings returns not through investment in disruptive new technologies, but through process improvement to squeeze the profits or through clever marketing. Investment in coffee shops belongs in conventional competitive capitalism.  In a society struggling for resources, one precious VC dollar spent on coffee shop in India is ten dollars not realized in creating new jobs in US.  Would it not be better if investment in coffee shops is best left to Starbucks and McDonald?

Communication, collaboration and commerce at the speed of light, today, enabled by the very same technology innovation has created a new order in investment community.  Short term profit incentives, appetite for instant gratification fostered by a casino-like real-time investment in Wall Street, a twitter influenced culture of management with superficial knowledge, short-attention span of VC community and profit-at-any-cost investment culture are all contributing to the diminishing of long-term focus, innovation and civic responsibility. 

Investing in coffee-shops and toll roads in India is the last desperate leap from creative disruption to conventional capitalism in search of quick-profit.  Is this what the investors in VC firms are looking for and are the compensation and tax incentives congruent with the VC mission?  Are the same factors that created Enron, sub-prime mortgages and innovation in financial instruments now influencing the Silicon Valley VCs?

Food for thought!

References

[1] Metooeconomist, “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Collective Hangover of Tax Payers, When Wall Street Gets Drunk” (https://metooeconomist.wordpress.com )

[2] Chris O’brien , “Changing focus in India:  Deals downshift from tech to ordinary living”, San Jose Mercury News, Sunday May 23, 2010

[3]  Scott Duke Harris, “Uncle Sam eyes bigger slice of VC”, San Jose Mercury News, Friday, June 4, 2010

[4]  David A. Hounshell, “Innovation and the Growth of the American Economy”, The Newsletter of FPRI’s Wachman Center, Vol. 14, No. 3, February 2009 (http://www.fpri.org/footnotes/1403.200902.hounshell.innovationamericaneconomy.html )

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4 12 2010
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[…] Are the Short-Term Profit Motives and Wall Street-like Investing under the Influence, Trumping Long … […]

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