Liquid Investments Can Work Against You

I’ve shared my views on how short-term valuation changes affect psychology. I was reminded of them recently when I had a great dinner with two established, successful founders, one of whom recently sold his company. The topic of public markets came up, and both shared that their portfolios have lost material amounts of money. The most interesting thing they said was that looking at their portfolios regularly is frustrating. One of them even mentioned that he was nervous about checking it given the recent market trajectory. They’re both considering selling losing positions to stop the bleeding.

Liquidity is a big difference between the public and private markets (i.e., venture capital). Some view the liquid nature of public markets as a benefit. There are benefits to it, but I also see a downside. Because of the liquidity of public markets, investors can constantly check the value of their investments. When valuations fall for macro reasons (i.e., the company is doing fine), some investors may sell their investments with the click of a button. Even though the company is doing fine and could appreciate significantly in value in the future, today’s pain is too much to bear, and people sell prematurely.

Private markets are different. Investors can’t check the current value of an investment. Companies are usually valued at the last round of capital raised. As companies face hurdles or the macro market changes, the valuation is still at the latest round. Resetting the valuation usually means raising a new round or a private party transition between two parties. Neither of these options is easy. If a seller is able to coordinate a transaction with a willing buyer, some companies can have the right to block the transaction. All of this means that investors in private companies are more likely to stick it out with private investments when times get tough.

The illiquid nature of private investments makes it hard for some people to embrace them. I think this illiquidity isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For winners, it forces investors to stick with investments during hard times. As companies get past the hard times, these investors reap returns they likely would have missed out on if they’d been able to sell their investment early.