Challenging Perceptions: The Reality of Private Market Illiquidity

By: Gridline Team | Published: 01/25/2024
Est. Reading Time:
3 minutes

Liquidity is the ability to convert an asset into cash quickly and without a substantial discount. In other words, it’s how easy it is to sell an asset. Stock markets like the New York Stock Exchange are considered highly liquid because the shares of most publicly traded companies can be bought or sold rapidly and at close to their true value.

With hundreds of billions of dollars in daily trading volume, NYSE’s buyers and sellers can be sure to find each other and complete transactions quickly. Private markets, on the other hand, are much less liquid.

Why are private markets illiquid?

Private market investments often come with a “lock-up” period, meaning that investors are unable to sell their shares for a certain amount of time. While venture funds can have a hold period of up to ten years, disbursements can begin as early as year five or six, with VC-backed companies going public on average 5.3 years after securing their first investment.

This lack of liquidity can be frustrating for investors who want to cash out their investments sooner. But it’s important to remember that illiquidity is often the price of admission for higher returns.

What is the illiquidity premium?

The illiquidity premium is the higher return investors expect to earn for an illiquid asset. This risk premium compensates investors for the inconvenience and added risk of being unable to sell their investment quickly if needed.

For example, let’s say you invest $1,000 in a stock that pays a 5 percent annual dividend. After one year, you’ll have earned $50 in dividends, making your investment worth $1,050.

Now, let’s say you invest the same $1,000 in a private company that doesn’t pay dividends but is expected to go public in five years. Suppose the company’s IPO is highly successful, and you sell your shares for $2,000, earning a 100 percent return on your investment.

However, there’s also a chance that the company might not go public or that its shares will be worth less than you paid when it finally lists on an exchange. So, there’s more risk involved in this investment than there was with the stock that paid dividends.

To compensate you for this additional risk, venture capitalists typically expect to earn a higher return on their investments than they would from stocks or other kinds of investments.

Private market liquidity is evolving

Despite the common perception that private markets are illiquid, some recent changes have made it easier for investors to cash out their investments sooner.

One of the most notable developments is the rise of secondary markets, which provide a way for investors to sell their shares in private companies before they go public. According to a report by Common Fund, secondary transaction volume in the first half of 2021 increased to $48 billion, compared to the first half of 2020 volume of $18 billion. This trend is likely to continue as more and more investors look for ways to cash out of their illiquid investments sooner.

The bottom line

Private market liquidity is often misunderstood. While it’s true that these investments can be less liquid than stocks or other kinds of assets, there are some recent developments that are making it easier for investors to cash out sooner. And, despite the added risk, these investments can still offer attractive returns.

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