Restoring Liquidity in the Australian Venture Capital Industry: NVCA 4 Pillars Approach

I endorse the recommendations made by the US National Venture Capital Association to address the capital markets crisis for venture-backed companies in the United States and wish to further extend those recommendations to apply specifically to Australia.

Over the course of the past ten years the number of initial public offerings (IPOs) by venture-backed companies has seriously declined. A key form of exit for venture investors, IPOs have all but dried up with very few serious listings. In fact, in the US only six such companies entered the public markets in 2008, with none in Australia.

The contribution of venture-backed companies to economic growth is proven, and a concerted effort is needed by a range of participants in the capital markets ecosystem in order to restore a viable IPO environment. A change in approach by both the private sector and government is essential.

It is critical to both Australia’s competitiveness and the country’s economic recovery to boost the venture-backed IPO market. One can extrapolate that the same would apply to Australia when considering the figures in a report to be released in early May by Global Insight that estimates that in 2008 public companies that were once venture-backed accounted for more than 12 million U.S. jobs and $2.9 trillion in revenues, which equates to 21 percent of U.S. GDP. Further, it is estimated that 92 percent of job growth at these companies occurs once the company enters the public markets.

As Mark Heesen, the president of the NVCA says, “This capital markets issue is not just a venture capital industry problem; it is a U.S. economic concern. If America wants to maintain its economic leadership and continue to grow and innovate, we must re-invigorate the public markets and strive towards healthier IPO levels similar to that which our country enjoyed in the 1980s and 1990s. Without this activity, we can expect job growth to disappear over time.”

In Australia this is a more pointed issue. Much of the country’s core intellectual property finds itself being commercialised offshore with minimal economic, environmental or social benefit back to Australia. Without a viable Australian IPO market, there is little chance that there will be a comparable venture capital ecosystem in place and much of the country’s incredible research will either be stillborn or shift offshore.

I agree wholeheartedly with the NVCA’s Four Pillar Plan as set out below and call on my Australian colleagues to rally around formulating a uniquely Australian solution to the crisis faced here.

The NVCA Four Pillar Plan to Restore the Venture-Backed IPO Market
At the core of the issue is a recognition that today’s market environment is challenging with respect to the issuance of small cap IPOs. There are multiple reasons as to why this is the case including the high costs of going public, the constituents involved in the process, and the restrictions placed on potential public companies. The NVCA recommendations, which seek to address these issues, comprise four categories or pillars, two which focus on changing behavior in the venture capital market and two which involve the government exploring policies conducive to venture-backed IPOs.

Pillar I: Ecosystem Partners
Within the last decade, venture-backed companies have been faced with fewer choices as it relates to investment banks and accounting firms that will assist in the IPO process. While the major investment banks continue to operate, the “four horsemen” boutique investment banks of the 1990s (Alex Brown, Hambrecht & Quist, Montgomery Securities, and Robertson Stephens), which specialized in IPOs of venture-backed companies, no longer exist. Further, the fall of Arthur Andersen and the resulting pressure placed on the Big Four accounting firms has, in many markets, left a void in terms of quality auditing services available for these smaller companies.

Against this backdrop, the NVCA believes that the venture capital industry must do more to promote alternative ecosystem partners while engaging with existing members to identify ways to better serve the needs of emerging growth companies. The Association has begun to engage in talks with boutique and major investment banks as well as the Big Four and other public accounting firms about how they can also better serve the needs of small cap companies. The NVCA also intends to encourage the use of a broader array of service providers such as the “Global Six” including Deloitte LLP, Ernst & Young LLP, Grant Thornton LLP, KPMG LLP, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP and BDO Seidman LLP.

Pillar II: Enhanced Liquidity Paths
There is consensus among many within the capital markets ecosystem that the distribution system that connects sellers and buyers of venture-backed company new issues is broken. There are many drivers behind this disconnect including mismatched expectations in terms of issue size, the lack of sell side analysts, and the propensity of hedge funds to buy and sell stock quickly. All of these factors contribute to a lack of an adequate distribution channel and considerable post-IPO market volatility.

To offer small venture-backed companies an enhanced distribution system for the sale of initial stock, the NVCA endorses concepts such as Inside Venture which is a private market platform that connects qualified companies that intend to IPO within 18 months with pre-screened cross-over investors. These buyers commit to buy and hold these stocks for the long term. Other providers with similar models include Portal Alliance (NASDAQ), SecondMarket and Xchange. Additionally, the NVCA will help raise awareness about pro-active M&A roll up strategies of smaller portfolio companies to achieve IPO critical mass and global alternatives to the U.S. public markets.

Pillar III: Tax Incentives
The NVCA has long asserted that the government must support a tax structure that fosters capital formation and rewards long term measured risk taking. To support a more vibrant IPO market, the U.S. must maintain tax policies that have been proven to encourage venture capital investment so that the pipeline of promising IPOs is as robust as possible. Further, Congress should consider adopting new tax incentives which would stimulate IPOs, at least in the short term.

The NVCA will continue to advocate strongly for a capital gains tax rate that is globally competitive and preserves a meaningful differential from the ordinary income rate. The Association asserts that venture capitalists who are successful in building new companies should continue to be taxed at a capital gains rate for any carried interest that is earned over the long term. The Association also intends to explore the possibility of a one time tax incentive for buyers and holders of IPOs as well as increasing the holding rate for capital gains status to two or more years.

Pillar IV: Regulatory Review
From a regulatory perspective, the last decade has been characterized by a series of broad sweeping regulations aimed at curbing serious abuses within the financial system but fraught with unintended consequences for small pre-public and public companies. From Sarbanes Oxley (SOX) to the Global Settlement to Reg FD, small venture-backed companies have been faced with costly compliance and increasing obstacles to enter the public markets as a result of regulations intended for larger multi-national corporations. The NVCA strongly supports regulation and protecting investors where necessary but does not support a “one-size-fits-all” regulatory approach.

To wit, the NVCA will advocate for a full systematic review by the Securities and Exchange Commission of recent regulations which impact small cap companies. This review would include interpretations of SOX, pre-IPO financial reporting requirements, the separation of analyst and investment banking functions, and private placement requirements. There are opportunities within existing regulations to tier compliance so as not to overburden emerging growth pre-public and public companies at a time when they need support from the government, their auditors, and the markets.

“We are optimistic that the recommendations included in the Four Pillar Plan will contribute to a more vibrant IPO market for venture-backed companies over the long term,” concluded Doll. “The NVCA remains committed to fostering an environment that fuels significant economic growth and job creation. The adoption of our recommendations is a critical element of our country’s continued global leadership and ability to bring high growth, innovative public companies to market.”