billions of dollars of capital into a money-losing business where the path to profitability wasn't clear?The answer is the remarkable effectiveness of predatory pricing at making money for VCs and founders. Rogers writes:
Wansley and Weinstein — who, not coincidentally, used to work in antitrust enforcement at the Justice Department — set out to change that. In a new paper titled "Venture Predation," the two lawyers make a compelling case that the classic model of venture capital — disrupt incumbents, build a scalable platform, move fast, break things — isn't the peak of modern capitalism that Silicon Valley says it is. According to this new thinking, it's anticapitalist. It's illegal. And it should be aggressively prosecuted, to promote free and fair competition in the marketplace.Below the fold I discuss Wansley and Weinstein's paper and relate it to events in the cryptosphere.
January 2017's Yale Law Journal contained Lina M. Khan's influential Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox. In the abstract Khan wrote:
Although Amazon has clocked staggering growth, it generates meager profits, choosing to price below-cost and expand widely instead. Through this strategy, the company has positioned itself at the center of e-commerce and now serves as essential infrastructure for a host of other businesses that depend upon it.Wansley and Weinstein's abstract reads:
We cannot cognize the potential harms to competition posed by Amazon’s dominance if we measure competition primarily through price and output. Specifically, current doctrine underappreciates the risk of predatory pricing and how integration across distinct business lines may prove anticompetitive. These concerns are heightened in the context of online platforms for two reasons. First, the economics of platform markets create incentives for a company to pursue growth over profits, a strategy that investors have rewarded. Under these conditions, predatory pricing becomes highly rational—even as existing doctrine treats it as irrational and therefore implausible. Second, because online platforms serve as critical intermediaries, integrating across business lines positions these platforms to control the essential infrastructure on which their rivals depend. This dual role also enables a platform to exploit information collected on companies using its services to undermine them as competitors.
Predatory pricing is a strategy firms use to suppress competition. The predator prices below its own costs to force its rivals out of the market. After they exit, the predator raises its prices to supracompetitive levels and recoups the cost of predation. The Supreme Court has described predatory pricing as “rarely tried” and “rarely successful” and has established a liability standard that is nearly impossible for plaintiffs to satisfy. We argue that one kind of company thinks predatory pricing is worth trying and at least potentially successful—venture-backed startups.The idea of lavishly subsidizing a company's customers wouldn't be attractive to most investors, but Wansley and Weinstein explain the attraction for VCs:
A venture predator is a startup that uses venture finance to price below its costs, chase its rivals out of the market, and grab market share. Venture capitalists (VCs) are motivated to fund predation—and startup founders are motivated to execute it—because it can fuel rapid, exponential growth. Critically, for VCs and founders, a predator does not need to recoup its losses for the strategy to succeed. The VCs and founders just need to create the impression that recoupment is possible, so they can sell their shares at an attractive price to later investors who anticipate years of monopoly pricing. In this Article, we argue that venture predation can harm consumers, distort market incentives, and misallocate capital away from genuine innovations. We consider reforms to antitrust law and securities regulation to deter it.
VCs are motivated to fund predation because it can deliver the rapid, exponential growth that venture investing requires. Venture funds are invested in portfolios of startups. The distribution of returns from a successful venture portfolio follows a power law. Most of the startups will fail or generate only modest growth, but one or two will grow exponentially. The outsized returns from those outlier companies must offset the losses from the rest of the portfolio. The skewed distribution of venture returns makes VCs focused on upside potential and relatively insensitive to downside risk. They seek out startups with the potential for rapid, exponential growth and push them to take risks to realize that potential.
Amazon's business model is viable; it could generate profits, the company just decides not to. The success of Amazon inspired "venture predators" to try the same "Lucy and the football" strategy with the stock market without needing a viable underlying business model. Uber is the canonical example of this. Hubert Horan has routinely analyzed Uber's financials and each time demonstrated the use of misleading and manipulated figures to create the false impression of profitability. For example, his most recent post, Can Uber Ever Deliver? Part Thirty-Two: Losses Top $33 Billion But Uber Has Avoided The Equity Collapse Most “Tech” Startups Experienced, analyzes Uber's 2022 results which showed:
a GAAP loss of $9.1 billion for full year 2022 (a negative 29% net margin) ... GAAP Net Income from ongoing operations was negative $2.1 billion, producing a net margin of negative 7.4% and bringing a legitimate calculation of its cumulative GAAP losses to $33.3 billion.Despite this, Uber claimed to be profitable. Horan documented the basis for this claim:
But earnings inflation returned in the fourth quarter as Uber claimed that its Didi stock appreciated by $773 million. Uber made no effort to explain exactly how a company that had been delisted from exchanges, been blocked from adding new customers and abandoned by investors in the US could be confidently judged to generated this much corporate value since September. More importantly Uber made no effort to explain why speculative numbers of this magnitude should be included in the headline numbers provided to investors about Uber’s current profitability.
And now Uber is running out of money to subsidize rides, and riders are discovering that the un-subsidized price is astonishing. Steven Levy discovered this on his way to interview Dara Khosrowshahi:
Fifty-one dollars and 69 cents. That was the charge, including tip, for the 2.95-mile trip I took last May from my downtown New York City apartment to the West Side facility where Uber was holding its annual product event, called Go-Get. The ride-hailing company’s charges have been higher in recent years, and fluctuate in any case, but that was nuts.Wansley and Weinstein write:
As Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi knows, high rates are one consequence of trying to run his company as an actual business, as opposed to a scorched-earth feral growth machine.
For years, Uber juiced growth by subsidizing prices. It lured riders and devastated the taxi business. You’ve now stopped the subsidies, and people are reporting sticker shock. We certainly feel it in New York City. I traveled 2.95 miles in an Uber to get here today, what do you think it cost?
Oh my God. Wow.
And that was my second try. Five minutes earlier, the price was $20 higher.
Yeah, surge pricing.
A surge makes no sense. It’s 10 am on a sunny weekday, and it’s not like the president’s in town. I do agree that this is higher than I normally see, but in general, an Uber now costs more. Do you worry that those who adopted the service because of attractive pricing might be rethinking their ridership?
Will Uber ever recoup the losses from its sustained predation? We do not know. Our point is that, from the perspective of the VCs who funded the predation, it does not matter. All that matters is that investors were willing to buy the VCs’ shares at a high price. The VC firm Benchmark, which led Uber’s Series A round, generated a return of about $5.8 billion on its investment. To Benchmark, Uber was a smashing success.In other words, "venture predation" is a strategy of creating hype about the inevitable progress moonwards of the stock of a budding monopolist then dumping the stock on retail before it becomes clear that the business model doesn't actually work.
Viewing "venture predation" as a precursor, you can see why VCs were so attracted to cryptocurrency List And Dump Schemes. They didn't need to be funded with billions of dollars, they didn't need the time and people to, for example, flood the streets with gig workers and their cars, they didn't even need manipulated financials to create the hype. All that was needed was a white paper that could persuade Coinbase to list the coin. One VC in particular found it easy to persuade Coinbase. Andreessen Horowitz (A16Z) was an early investor in Coinbase.
If coins, especially VC-backed coins, consistently underperformed Bitcoin/Ethereum after listing on Coinbase, that says to me that insiders were waiting for a big, dollar-based exchange to list so they could sell - VCs taking profits at the expense of retail. Those insiders include venture capital firms like a16z and, incredibly, Coinbase’s own venture arm, which has a number of investments listed on Coinbase. Other exchanges like Kraken, FTX, and Gemini are also all active in venture, and have listed their own investments.And in fact, Khan showed that:
A16z’s returns are much worse than Coinbase’s listings overall! This to me smells of insider selling. These should be the best coins there are, given a16z’s access, but instead 100% of those older than 12 months and 90% older than 6 months lag Ethereum.He concluded:
I think this is a microcosm of how bad the incentives are in crypto - VCs and private investors that used to have to wait ten years for liquidity can now get it within one. The last time that happened was 1999, and we know how that ended. It’s a recipe for risk taking that is then quickly passed on to the public.Yes, the rewards are smaller than Wansley and Weinstein-type "venture predation" but there are lots of them and waiting less than a year to turn the investment around means that the lots of smaller returns multiply quickly. And the risk is much lower; the returns are essentially guaranteed by the addiction of crypto-bros to buying VC-funded coins listed on Coinbase.