Build Goodwill. Give Whipsawed LPs Back their Money, Says Industry Observer

Jeffrey Sohl,  the Director of the Center for Venture Research at the University of New Hampshire has a proposition for VCs, and, well, they aren’t going to like it. His suggestion? That they return part of their funds.

“While it might be a good time to be investing, exits are really tough right now, and with paper gone, the companies with a lot of cash to acquire might start holding onto it,” says Sohl. If VCs “return part of what you’ve raised, or don’t call down all of your commitments, LPs will like it. And you’ll get it back when you raise your next fund anyway. Probably.”

No doubt there are very few VCs who would agree with Sohl. NVCA president Mark Heesen, for his part, laughs emphatically when asked whether firms that have raised bigger funds in recent years should consider paring them back, as some offered to in 2002 and 2003, after the bubble’s burst.

“Here we are, an industry that raised $37 billion last year and $30 billion in 2006,” says Heesen. “Then you look at what LPs have committed to the buyout community” — a record $281.7 in 2007 — “a community that hasn’t been using a lot of the money it has raised. If LPs go to anyone, it’s going to be them.”

Sohl himself acknowledges that “with the exit market in rough shape, VCs will likely have to do additional rounds for their portfolio companies to keep them going until the exit market starts to pick up.” At the same time, he says, “A lot depends on how restless limited partners get with respect to exits and returns.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, one LP in the asset class, speaking on background, tells me that he thinks that Sohl’s idea is a great one. “Right now, a lot of firms are structurally out of balance, their returns are terrible, and these enormous funds [some] have been raising make no sense. In this market, I don’t think [cutting LPs a break] is so crazy.”

It’s part of the ebb and flow of the industry, says Sohl. “It may not be popular, but downsizing is a strategy that VCs may need to consider, depending on how long the downturn lasts.”