Why Morgan Stanley’s action on Flipkart is bad news for Indian unicorns

Given that Flipkart is expected to list its shares in the US at some point over the next few years, the valuation estimates of the mutual funds will be an important indicator of how stock market investors will value the company. Photo: Hemant Mishra/MintGiven that Flipkart is expected to list its shares in the US at some point over the next few years, the valuation estimates of the mutual funds will be an important indicator of how stock market investors will value the company. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

Bengaluru/New Delhi: Late last month, Flipkart India Pvt. Ltd, the country’s largest and most valuable Internet company, got a taste of the exacting standards of US stock markets, where it hopes to list.

On Friday, Morgan Stanley Institutional Fund Trust, a minority investor in Flipkart, disclosed a write-down in the value of its holdings in the company by as much as 27%. The mutual fund reported the number in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the US stock markets regulator.

Flipkart was valued at $15 billion when it received $700 million from Tiger Global Management, Qatar Investment Authority and other investors in June.

That was its fourth round of fund-raising in a year. Its valuation shot up roughly fivefold from $2.5-3 billion in May 2014.

Morgan Stanley’s latest estimate implies the mutual fund now values Flipkart at $11 billion.

The markdown is significant not only because it proves that Flipkart’s valuation had run ahead of itself, but also because mutual funds comprise one of the largest institutional buyers of shares in stock markets.

At least two other mutual funds, T. Rowe Price and Baillie Gifford, are investors in Flipkart. T. Rowe Price hasn’t yet reported the latest estimated value of its stake in the company.

Given that Flipkart is expected to list its shares in the US at some point over the next few years, the valuation estimates of the mutual funds will be an important indicator of how stock market investors will value the company. Flipkart declined to comment for this story.

Flipkart is hardly the only unicorn, a term that is used to describe start-ups that are valued at more than $1 billion, to have its value marked down by mutual fund investors.

Along with cutting the value of its stake in Flipkart, Morgan Stanley also reduced the worth of its holdings in file storage company Dropbox Inc. and data analytics company Palantir Technologies Inc. Late last year, mutual funds owned by T. Rowe Price, Fidelity and BlackRock cut the worth of their holdings in US unicorns en masse.

BlackRock is also an investor in online marketplace Snapdeal (Jasper Infotech Pvt. Ltd), which raised roughly $50 million last month at a valuation of $6.5 billion. BlackRock’s next filing on Snapdeal will be closely watched to see if other Indian unicorns will be marked down, too.

Snapdeal’s $50 million fund-raising, which was accompanied by $150 million in share sales by existing Snapdeal investors to new shareholders, took more than six months to close, primarily because there are not too many takers for India’s top e-commerce firms at their current valuations. The $50 million fund-raising was also significantly smaller than what online retailers typically seek from investors.

Mint reported on 4 February that China’s Alibaba Group is in early talks to buy a stake in Flipkart and increase its holding in Snapdeal. The talks are at a very initial stage and the likelihood of a deal is a function of Flipkart’s willingness to offer a discount on its current valuation of $15 billion, Mint had reported then.

“Our valuation has grown steadily between our last two funding rounds,” a Snapdeal spokesperson said.

There are two broad concerns about the valuations of Flipkart and Snapdeal. One, whether they will ever be able to cut their ballooning losses without sacrificing sales growth. Two, whether they will lose out to the Indian unit of Amazon.com Inc., the world’s largest online retailer.

Over the course of 2015, Amazon gained market share in India at the expense of both Flipkart and Snapdeal, according to publicly available data and several company executives.

Future estimates by mutual funds of their holdings in Flipkart and Snapdeal—and these companies’ eventual IPOs—will depend a lot on these two factors.

“Growing at negative operating margins to raise money in quick succession is a destructive style of doing business,” said Kashyap Deorah, serial entrepreneur and author of The Golden Tap, a book on India’s hyper-funded start-up ecosystem. “It kills the ecosystem… to build a thriving long-term business environment, we need to get off the addiction of global funds buying market spaces in India like territory.”

Deorah predicts Flipkart’s valuation will eventually slump to the amount it has invested. Flipkart has raised anywhere between $3 billion and $3.5 billion. “The downward trend will continue until Flipkart’s valuation equals invested capital,” he said.

To be sure, Deorah’s prediction seems extreme.

Flipkart is still the largest e-commerce firm in the last remaining big e-commerce market in the world. It has a solid brand, a strong leadership team and deep-pocketed investors, among other strengths.

“Flipkart’s valuation may look stretched at $15 billion in this current environment, but you can’t take away the fact that the company still has a solid business,” a Flipkart investor said on condition of anonymity. “In the worst-case scenario, it may take the company a year or two to grow into that valuation. But it will definitely happen. And if the market sentiment becomes better, it will happen sooner.”

[“source-Livemint”]