Just when the economy needs risk-taking the most, risk-takers are under the most threat. The Treasury now wants venture-capital firms declared as systemic risks and put under tight restrictions as part of the broader re-regulation of financial firms. Venture capitalists argue that since they don’t use debt and their firms are comparatively small, they shouldn’t come under rules designed for highly leveraged, too-big-to-fail banks.
How this debate turns out matters, because some 20% of U.S. gross national product is created by companies that were formed through venture backing. They include Intel, Apple and Google. How policy makers treat venture capital is a measure of the amount of innovation and enterprise that happens in an economy, with more regulation leading to less innovation.
This is a tough time for venture capital, with investments by firms falling more than 50% in the second quarter. The 700 or so venture-capital firms in the U.S. are mostly small partnerships, with a modest voice in Washington. They say the industry as we know it can’t survive if firms are regulated as investment advisers, which would mean complying with rules for disclosure, compliance, record keeping and privacy designed for huge firms.
This is a good time to recall that the venture-capital industry was born as a reaction to New Deal regulations that stifled capital and prolonged the Depression. The country’s first venture-capital firm (other than family-run funds) was American Research and Development, planned in the 1930s and launched after World War II in Boston.