Term Sheet

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VCs are selling fewer companies, and that's okay

January 2, 2014: 2:57 PM ET

130321164317-keep-calm-and-carry-on-poster-240xa2013 was the worst year for VC-backed M&A since 2009. Don't worry about it.

FORTUNE -- Venture capitalists sold only 388 companies via mergers or acquisitions last year, according to data released this morning by the National Venture Capital Association and Thomson Reuters. It is the lowest such total since 2009, and nearly a 23% decline from 2012.

Sounds pretty bad. But it probably isn't.

When the IPO market is strong, as it was in 2013, venture capitalists are typically loathe to exit their best companies via trade sales. Sure there are exceptions -- Tumblr to Yahoo (YHOO) for $1.1 billion, for example -- but most of the upper crust either went public, filed to go public or is expecting to go public within the next year or two (think AirBNB, Box, Dropbox, Square, Spotify, etc.).

What that means is that most of the M&A targets either are middling companies being dumped around par, or failed companies being sold for scrap. That's why only 25-35% of these deals ever have their values disclosed -- no one wants to publicize having funded (or bought) a company that is now worth less than my seven-year-old Toyota Prius.

So if VCs are selling fewer companies than in years past, then it may actually mean the VCs are generating higher returns. Particularly if the average value of disclosed deals remains relatively healthy (which it was, at around $161 million). Or is there a flaw in my counterintuition?

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Dan Primack
Dan Primack
Senior Editor, Fortune

Dan Primack joined Fortune.com in September 2010 to cover deals and dealmakers, from Wall Street to Sand Hill Road. Previously, Dan was an editor-at-large with Thomson Reuters, where he launched both peHUB.com and the peHUB Wire email service. In a past journalistic life, Dan ran a community paper in Roxbury, Massachusetts. He currently lives just outside of Boston.

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