Tech’s troubles on Wall Street haven’t hit Boston yet — but they could
Technology stocks took a beating on Monday, the latest in a string of downdrafts that has erased hundreds of billions of dollars in market value from companies such as Apple and Google and left investors concerned that the industry’s long period of runaway growth is over.
In Boston, where there are few tech giants and hundreds of startups, the tremors on Wall Street have so far not shaken the faith of executives and their investors. In the past week, a handful of young companies have announced funding from early-stage investors. The venture team at Bain Capital said it had raised a new $1 billion fund to invest in promising companies.
But the local tech sector isn’t immune to the turmoil on Wall Street. No boom lasts forever, and when this one ends, Boston could get hurt.
“The storyline has been so positive, with such good prospects for such a long time that it’s hard to remember that there could be a significant headwind at some point,” said Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “The Boston region is deeply involved with the digital sector, and itself could see ramifications of any adjustment.” While the Dow Jones industrial lost 396 points, or 1.6 percent, on Monday, the tech-heavy Nasdaq dropped 3 percent. The biggest names in tech — including Amazon, Facebook, and Netflix — all tumbled. Analog Devices of Norwood shed 4.4 percent, and Cambridge-based Akamai was down 2.3 percent.
While the focus has been on publicly traded stocks, a broad pullback could also affect the significant wealth generated here by venture capital, private investments to support the rapid growth of emerging tech companies.
Nationwide, that money has generally been concentrated in tech hubs such as Silicon Valley, Calif., New York, and Boston.
Venture-backed companies are generally insulated from the caprice of the stock market, but that doesn’t mean they’re invulnerable. And since Boston depends more heavily on such companies, it has more to lose.
Josh Lerner, a Harvard Business School professor who studies entrepreneurial management, said his research has shown that venture investors tend to draw back when the stock market retreats.
“Venture capital, even though it’s private, is equity, and as such we would expect that it’s not divorced from what’s going on in public markets,” he said.
Though researchers say it’s difficult to quantify the specific economic impact of venture capital in Boston, there is no doubt that it is substantial.
A 2012 study by Duke University researchers found that venture-backed firms tended to have between 20 and 160 employees, depending on the company’s age. And there are a lot in Massachusetts: A recent report by the National Venture Capital Association found that investors had sunk $9.1 billion into emerging companies over 483 deals through the third quarter of this year alone.
Many venture-funded companies rely on continued infusions of investment to keep them afloat while they build profitable businesses. And there’s a chance that if the faucet shuts off, many could fail.
Observers of the Boston tech scene say they’re not terribly worried. For one, it’s far from certain that the expansion is over. The Nasdaq is holding on to a slim 1.8 percent gain for the year, after being up as much as 18 percent at the end of August.
And the Boston area has a strong cushion for its economy. Massachusetts is at nearly full employment, and its economy has multiple points of strength.
John Friar, an entrepreneurship professor focusing on innovation at Northeastern University, said Boston probably is never again going to see the tech sector collapse like it did in the 1990s.
In that era, he said, much of the sector was tied to minicomputer companies such as Digital Equipment Corp., which lost out in a market shift toward personal computing. Today’s tech scene has more variety, with strengths in biotech, cloud software, and cybersecurity.
“An area only gets in trouble when they’re reliant on one technology. When minicomputers ran their course, there was a huge transitional period where a lot of people got laid off,” Friar said. “What Massachusetts and Boston, mostly, has done is diversified now into multiple technologies.”
Nonetheless, it is likely that at some point investors’ interest in tech stocks will slow, and that it will put a damper on the bonanza that Boston has enjoyed in recent years.
Maria Cirino, managing partner at .406 Ventures, a Boston firm focused on cybersecurity, health care software, and cloud computing, said a slowdown might not actually be so bad for the companies that can endure it.
Cirino was chief executive of the security and privacy startup Guardent when the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, and she said she saw a marked decline in the amount of available venture capital. But her company had just raised money, which gave it space to grow.
“The contrarian view is that it’s actually really positive when only companies that are super high-quality . . . get funded, because then those companies have less competition and can really thrive,” Cirino said. “In markets where everything is getting funded, regardless of quality, it’s tougher for startups to differentiate and to break out of the pack.”
The venture capital model is built on the assumption that many investments will fail and that a few wildly successful picks will deliver overall gains — particularly for the “limited partner” investors who have given the funds money to throw around.
Lately, the estimated value of startups has been growing as massive amounts of money flow into venture funds from investors such as pension programs and sovereign wealth funds from foreign nations.
Andy Palmer, chief executive of the Cambridge startup Tamr, which helps companies make sense of complicated data sets, said he doesn’t believe there’s any reason for such investors to look elsewhere.
“Where are they going to put their money? The reason why they’re investing in tech is that they believe that’s where the best growth opportunity is,” Palmer said. “There just aren’t a lot of places in the world that grow as fast as US tech.”
Geopolitical shifts could be a factor in slowing the flow, however.
Saudi Arabia has been key among overseas tech investors, which has led some to wonder whether the international firestorm over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi might have some effect on the sector.
Increasing trade tensions between the United States and China could also have an effect on foreign investment, said Kirsten Morin, co-head of global venture capital at Aberdeen Standard Investments.
But she said she doesn’t see as much risk that investment in tech will slow down because of the companies’ performances alone. The startups she has examined are doing well, she said.
“Ultimately, you would first have to see companies encountering operational challenges before they would think about needing to make workforce changes,” she said. “Unless the economy changes dramatically, they seem to have been beating their plans in recent quarters.”