It is fascinating to watch this back-and-forth between NYU Prof Aswath Damodaran and Uber board member Bill Gurley on the taxi company’s valuation.
To set the context, when the latest funding round for Uber was announced, valuing it at USD 17 billion, Damodaran – a guru in valuation – wrote his own analysis which valued the company at about a third of that value. While it was a typical Damodaran post – long, detailed and making and stating lots of assumptions – it was probably intended as an academic exercise (the way I see it).
Instead it seems to have really caught the fancy of the silicon valley investment community, and led to a response by Gurley (I admit I haven’t read his full response – it seemed to attack straw men in places). And Damodaran has responded to the response. Now that the Three Way Handshake is complete I don’t expect any more backs and forths, but I won’t rule it out either (it’s possible but not plausible, to use Damodaran’s terminology).
What fascinates me is why an academic’s academic post on valuation of a company has created so much of a flutter – so much to merit a long-winded response from the board member. I’m reminded of two things that my valuation professor had told me some 10 years back when I was in business school.
1. Valuation is always wrong
2. Value of a company is what the market thinks it’s valued at
The first of these is a bit of a motherhood statement and adds no value to this particular discussion so let’s not take that into account. It’s the second reason that has got the investors’ knickers in a twist.
In the past, I’ve seen Damodaran publish valuations of companies that are about to go public, or are already public – Tesla and Twitter for example. It is usually an academic exercise, and Damodaran’s valuations value these companies at lower than what the market values. However, given that these posts have appeared after there has been a broad consensus of a company’s valuation, it has not really impacted a company’s valuation, and thus have been treated as an academic exercise.
The problem with Uber is that it is a private company, and unlikely to go public for a very long time. The problem with a private company is that it is difficult for investors to agree on its valuation – there are very few trades and the stock is illiquid (by definition). And illiquidity means extremely high bid-ask spreads (to put a technical spin on it) and widely varying valuations.
Sometimes, when nobody knows what something is valued at (like Uber – which is creating a new category which no one has any experience in valuing), what people look for is some kind of a peg, or an “anchor”. When they see what they think is a reasonable and broadly reliable valuation, they tend to use that valuation as an “anchor” and if a large number of investors agree on one such anchor, the anchor ends up being the company’s valuation itself.
To reiterate, value of a company is what the market thinks it’s valued at. Nobody knows what Uber is valued at. Investors and existing shareholders agreed at a particular valuation, and did a deal at that valuation. However, this valuation is not “deep” – not too many people agree to this valuation.
It is in this context that an (very well renowned) academic’s valuation, which values the company at far less than the last transacted price, can act as an anchor. Damodaran is extremely widely respected in investing circles, and hence his valuation is likely to have received much attention. It might even be possible that his valuation becomes an “anchor” in investors’ minds of Uber’s valuation. And this is where the problem lies.
Even if you were to account for the consistent downward bias in Damodaran’s valuations and adjust Uber’s valuation accordingly, it is likely to lead to a much lower anchor compared to the last transacted price. And this is not likely to be good for existing investors. Hence, they need to take steps to quickly debunk Damodaran’s valuation, to make sure it doesn’t end up as an anchor! And hence the long response by Gurley, and the silicon valley investor community in general!
To summarize, all that this entire brouhaha on Uber’s valuation shows is that its price discovery so far has been rather shallow.