My Conversation with the excellent Sebastian Mallaby

Venture capital most of all, hedge funds as well with the Fed tossed in.  Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is one excerpt from the Conversation:

COWEN: What do you think of the view that in recent years, there’s been a huge consumer retail tech boom? Basically FAANG stocks, right? And when that is over — it might be over now — the excess returns to VC will go away. If you look at venture capital for biotech, which has been hammered lately, as we’re speaking here, late January 2022 — and maybe venture capital is a limited model for one period of time, and otherwise, it just does okay. True or false?

MALLABY: False. I say that because, in a cyclical sense, you might be right, but I think there’s a deep structural shift, which is really important. That is that intangible capital has become more and more important in our economy. The nature of intangible capital is that it’s hard to measure it in financial reports.

To understand whether a particular software investment, for example, is worth a huge amount or, really, nothing, you need to understand what that software development within the company is doing. You need to be hands-on. You need to have the technical skills to evaluate that software project. The more that intangible capital rises as a share of new GDP creation, the more this venture-style hands-on expert investing is going to be valuable.

COWEN: Your explanation — if I understand it — to me seems to suggest that venture capital for biotech won’t work very well. You’re portraying it as something that’s very, very hard to do, a very limited skill, so you’re going to be wrong a lot of times. That means the times you’re right, the product has to be scalable very rapidly.

But in biotech, there are regulators. You often need a sales force. It’s not scalable in the way that, say, LinkedIn or Netflix are scalable. Doesn’t that mean VC will just stay limited to a very small area of those things that are super rapidly scalable? Or if you think it’s pretty easy to pick winners, then you have to think the rents get exhausted.

MALLABY: [laughs] Yeah, this is a version of, actually, a wider debate which goes beyond biotech, which is the claim that venture capital is really only good for software projects, that software can be scaled very, very fast; there are network effects once you get product-market fit, and you don’t need much capital.

And this:

COWEN: I have some questions about other topics. You have some highly regarded books about hedge funds and about the Fed. In the late ’90s, the bailout of Long-Term Capital Management — was that a kind of original sin that just set us on a path of bailing more things out at higher and higher price tags? Should we have just let LTCM fall?

MALLABY: No, I think the original sin was Continental Illinois, much earlier in 1986, I believe, when the Fed bailed out this bank which it thought was too big to fail. I’m not sure it really was too big to fail, but it was a moment when the Latin American debt crisis was still casting a shadow, when the banking system was perceived to be fragile, and the Fed just wasn’t willing to let it go. That was the original sin because taxpayer money was used to bail it out.

There is much more at the link, and I am very happy to recommend Sebastian’s new and very good book The Power Law: Venture Capital and the Making of the New Future.


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