2019 is poised to be the biggest year for U.S.-listed initial public offerings since the dotcom bubble.
That was one of the findings in a piece I contributed to the recently published Fortune 500 issue of the magazine. As Kathleen Smith, cofounder of Renaissance Capital, an IPO-tracking firm, told me: “We think we can get to over $100 billion in issuance,” or money raised by capital market debutantes. The last record was set in 2000, when companies pulled in $97 billion.
This projected record-breaking year has been propelled, in part, by so-called unicorn tech companies. Venture capitalists, looking to wind down their outstanding funds, have at long last dug their heels into the fattened flanks of their portfolio companies, compelling them to list on stock exchanges, though years later than usual. The urgency to raise money from public investors had been forestalled by a new breed of deep-pocketed private investors ready to shower firms with ample, late-stage funding. The trend is perhaps best epitomized by the mega-sized cash injections of Softbank impresario Masayoshi Son, the Don Corleone of Silicon Valley, whose offers, doled out of a $100 billion, Saudi-soaked “vision fund,” are not to be refused.
The rise of Goliaths has made life more difficult for the Davids. Barry Silbert, who runs Digital Currency Group, a cryptocurrency conglomerate, told Fortune during an appearance on a recent episode of Balancing The Ledger that, since selling SecondMarket, a marketplace for people to trade private shares in startups, to NASDAQ in 2015, he has kept his distance from, and been disappointed in, the world of public equities. “I continue to think the public markets are broken in that they’re no longer accessible for smaller, fast-growing companies,” he said. “I think that’s a shame.”
How will the financial industry adapt to such toughened conditions? Like many techno-optimists, Silbert has set his sights on software solutions. He is looking, unsurprisingly, toward innovations sprouting from blockchains and digital currencies. Binance, the cryptocurrency exchange giant, has been testing out “IEOs,” or initial exchange offerings, a descendent of the speculative token sale or initial coin offering (ICO), for instance. (“I wasn’t a fan of ICOs,” Silbert noted on our show. “But I do think that experimentation like that is important,” he added, describing himself as “philosophically supportive.”)
Regulators are less sure. Especially in the U.S., recent guidance has forced entrepreneurs into tough spots. Jeremy Allaire, CEO of Circle, a cryptocurrency outfit that recently laid off 30 employees, said he was “deeply frustrated” by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s stance on digital assets. Fred Wilson, an investor at Union Square Ventures, called U.S. securities laws “very damaging policy” in a post on Twitter. Kik, a chat app on whose board Wilson sits, has vowed to battle the SEC over a $98 million ICO the startup held in 2017. (The company is soliciting cryptocurrency donations to pay legal costs associated with the fight.)
It’s unclear what the future of capital formation, public markets, and equity investment will hold, but there are guaranteed to be big changes—or at least a blossoming of alternatives—in the years ahead. As Silbert forecasts, over the next decade or so, the financial industry “will look a lot different.”
The Ledger team tends to agree. Indeed, we’ll be discussing the multifarious possibilities with the industry’s top minds at Brainstorm Finance, our invitation-only, seaside retreat in Montauk later this month. Do email us if you’re interested in an invitation.
THE LEDGER'S LATEST
Facebook Could Fix the News Industry With Micropayments—Unless Kik Does It First by Jeff John Roberts
These Stocks Are Born to Run by Rey Mashayekhi
Mark Zuckerberg Answers Critics Who Want to Break Up Facebook by Danielle Abril
To the Moon… Facebook’s GlobalCoin is coming. Transferwise doubles valuation to $3.5 billion. Goldman Sachs-backed Marqueta reaches $2 billion valuation. Mike Novogratz’s Galaxy Digital reaps a handsome return from Block.one. Robinhood opens cryptocurrency trading in New York. Startup Zero raises $20 million for a debit card-like credit card. AT&T is accepting cryptocurrency payments via BitPay. European Central Bank: “crypto-assets do not currently pose an immediate threat to the financial stability of the euro area.” Bitcoin for foreign aid? Wall Street isn’t sold on Silicon Valley’s blitz-scaling unicorns.
…Rekt. Circle lays off 10% of staff. Binance sues Sequoia Capital for reputational damage. IBM and State Street lose top blockchain execs. Uber and Lyft drivers artificially inflate surge pricing. Google stored passwords in plaintext. Snapchat employees spied on users. Real estate giant First American leaked hundreds of millions of mortgage-related documents. An engineering manager at BitGo lost $100,000 to a phone hacker. Young people aren’t saving their money because climate change. Witness Breaker Magazine’s swan song.
BALANCING THE LEDGER
In lieu of Balancing The Ledger, here’s a clip of Fortune’s Jen Wieczner hosting a debate about the investment prospects for gold vs. Bitcoin at the SkyBridge Alternatives Conference, or SALT, in Las Vegas earlier this month. The contenders were goldbug Peter Schiff, chief economist and global strategist at Euro Pacific Capital, who squared off against Bitcoin bull Barry Silbert, founder and CEO of Digital Currency Group (and recent guest on Fortune’s show).
Skip ahead to 3:42:40 for the interview.
That’s the return early investors in Block.One, a much-hyped cryptocurrency startup and main developer of the EOS blockchain, are set to reap from an unusual buyback program, Bloomberg reports, citing a letter to shareholders. If someone bought $100,000 worth of Block.one shares less than three years ago, that stake would now be worth $6.6 million. Block.one is proffering $150,000 per share for up to 10% of its stock, valuing itself at about $2.3 billion, despite 2018’s market downturn and the company having no real product.
MEMES AND MUMBLES
Bend the knee. For the Game of Thrones fans here (if there are any left after that last season): Jerome Flynn, a.k.a. Bronn of Blackwater, is advising a cryptocurrency startup for vegans. Yes, you read that right. As Gizmodo jeered, “no we didn’t just throw darts at a wall covered in buzzwords.”
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to recording myself lip-synching “Old Town Road” while busting out Fortnite dance moves on an electric scooter for my devoted TikTok following.
FOMO NO MO'
Cracking the time capsule. In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web, Ars Technica republished a 2011 retrospective tour of the earliest web browsers. Mosaic and Netscape were not the first attempts, even if they were the most successful (at least initially). It’s interesting to contemplate the origins of this crucial bit of technology as we look to the onset of “Web 3.0,” the web’s next phase of development, which is anticipated to involve decentralized services and, potentially, cryptocurrency.