Wednesday, March 22, 2023

The Growth Fetish -- twelve years ago at the blog (SVB edition)

Linette Lopez (someone you should definitely be following) did perhaps the best deep dive on the collapse of SVB and on the culture that caused it. The whole thing is worth a read but I want to highlight this section because it dovetails with one of our longstanding threads.

In Silicon Valley the highest priority for any business is growth. That means if a certain trend is making money, the entire industry will pile in headfirst. Silicon Valley Bank thrived on these trends. It turned itself into the kind of asset VCs would want to own during the peak of this bubble: a high-growth business with a client list full of well-connected VCs, pedigreed startups, and depositors capitalizing on the latest craze. It was the Valley reflected back on itself in a bank balance sheet. SVB built its chummy relationships in classic tech fashion, winning over startups and their founders with an array of products meant to weave clients deeper into Silicon Valley's financial fabric. From direct equity investments to personal mortgages to founders, it was part of the plumbing that connected the industry. It was a part of tech culture, and it's that culture that ultimately did it in.

But to grow at the breakneck speed of its clients, Silicon Valley Bank executives had to change things in Washington. After the financial crisis, institutions with $50 billion or more in assets were designated "systemically important" and subjected to more-onerous rules. These requirements made the banks safer, but they also tamped down SVB's ability to grow. So the bank launched a lobbying campaign to neuter these regulations. The Trump administration and Congress finally gave SVB what it wanted in 2018, raising the "systemically important" threshold to $250 billion in assets.

Once that was accomplished, the bank was able to balloon, growing deposits from just under $50 billion in 2019 to nearly $200 billion in 2021. SVB's customers were growth-focused tech companies sensitive to interest-rate hikes. These customers all had the same sensitivity to rising interest rates and a slowing economy. They were startups depending on rounds of money that would get cut off in a downturn. They were crypto firms that faced the mounting threat of increased regulation. SVB took on a client base with a risk profile like none other in the country, and it then invested their money in assets that were sure to decline as rates rose. There was no hedging. SVB's balance sheet reflected complete trust in the Silicon Valley model: grow fast, grab customers, bet it all, and figure the rest out later. But, ironically, the very industry that the bank modeled itself on bailed at the first sign of trouble.

We've been thinking about investors' irrational focus on growth for a long time. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Growth Fetish

[This is a big topic so I'm just going to lay out the bare bones for now and flesh things out later, hopefully with a little help.]

It's obvious that our economy is suffering from a lack of growth but for a while now I've come to suspect that in a more limited but still dangerous sense we also overvalue growth and that this bias has distorted the market and sometimes encouraged executives to pursue suboptimal strategies (such as Border's attempt to expand into the British market).

Think of it this way, if we ignore all those questions about stakeholders and the larger impact of a company, you can boil the value of a business down to a single scalar: just take the profits over the lifetime of a company and apply an appropriate discount function (not trivial but certainly doable). The goal of a company's management is to maximize this number and the goal of the market is to assign a price to the company that accurately reflects that number.

The first part of the hypothesis is that there are different possible growth curves associated with a business and, ignoring the unlikely possibility of a tie, there is a particular curve that optimizes profits for a particular business. In other words, some companies are better off growing rapidly; some are better off with slow or deferred growth; some are better off simply staying at the same level; and some are better off being allowed to slowly contract.

It's not difficult to come up with examples of ill-conceived expansions. Growth almost always entails numerous risks for an established company. Costs increase and generally debt does as well. Scalability is usually a concern. And perhaps most importantly, growth usually entails moving into an area where you probably don't know what the hell you're doing. I recall Peter Lynch (certainly a fan of growth stocks) warning investors to put off buying into chains until the businesses had demonstrated the ability to set up successful operations in other cities.

But the idea of getting in on a fast-growing company is still tremendously attractive, appealing enough to unduly influence people's judgement (and no, I don't see any reason to mangle a sentence just to keep an infinitive in one piece). For reasons that merit a post of their own (GE will be mentioned), that natural bias toward growth companies has metastasised into a pervasive fetish.

This bias does more than inflate the prices of certain stocks; it pressures people running companies to make all sorts of bad decisions from moving into markets where you don't belong (Borders) to pumping up market share with unprofitable customers (Groupon) to overpaying for acquisitions (too many examples to mention).

As mentioned before we need to speed up the growth of our economy, but those pro-growth policies have to start with a realistic vision of how business works and a reasonable expectation of what we can expect growth to do (not, for example, to alleviate the need for more saving and a good social safety net). Fantasies of easy and unlimited wealth are part of what got us into this mess. They certainly aren't going to help us get out of it.


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