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Decoding Venture Capital Industry Spin

January 15, 2016, 7:08 PM UTC
Photograph by Lauren Nicole — Getty Images

Venture capitalists disbursed $58.8 billion into U.S.-based companies last year, according to data released on Friday by Thomson Reuters, PwC and the National Venture Capital Association. That’s the second-highest figure ever recorded by the trio, which has been doing this for decades.

In a press release announcing the figures, NVCA president Bobby Franklin said: “With almost $60 billion deployed to startup companies in 2015, the venture capital ecosystem is strong and healthy.”

Strong? Perhaps. Healthy? Not necessarily.

The busiest year ever on record for U.S. venture capital (not counting for inflation) was 2000, when companies raised nearly $105 billion. Then comes the $58.8 billion for 2015, and $54.91 billion from 1999.



Do you remember how poorly most of those 1999 and 2000 investments fared? This was an era when firms were raising new funds every couple of years, but the median net returns for funds raised between 1998 and 2000 was actually negative (according to Cambridge Associates). The mean net return was positive for 1998, but remained negative for 2001. It’s the worst performance period in Cambridge Associates data that stretches back to 1981, and led to a massive industry shakeout that caused dozens of firms to close and others to return money they had already raised.

Moreover, deal activity actually slowed substantially between the third and fourth quarters ― dollars off 32%, number of deals off 16%. So is that a sign of weakness under Franklin and the NVCA’s definition?

Sure, there are a bunch of tech and macroeconomic differences between then and now, but the industry’s faith in the virtue of large numbers is unproven at best, and disproven at worst.

Franklin was unavailable for comment.