There have been plenty of discussions surrounding fintech valuations this year. Rumors of a bubble have plagued fintech for a few years, and high valuations combined with seemingly endless funding rounds have analysts raising their eyebrows.
We spoke with CMFG Director of Discovery Fund Elizabeth McCluskey to get her take on fintech investment, M&A activity, and industry trends.
How is this year trending so far when it comes to investing? What are the funding numbers and volume as compared to years past?
Elizabeth McCluskey: Fintech startups raised $28.8 billion in funding during Q1 2022. Despite being down 18% from the previous quarter, this marked the fourth-largest funding quarter on record. And this represents a large share of all venture capital activity; fintech startups raised 1 out of every 5 VC dollars in Q1, indicating that the sector is still immensely popular for investors. CMFG Ventures is no exception—we’re on pace for our busiest and biggest year to-date since the inception of our funds. Transactions have been strong across all stages of companies.
Our two funds serve distinct purposes but share the same goal of fostering innovation between financial institutions and fintechs. Our main fund supports Series A companies and beyond, investing in fintechs focused on lending, banking technology, financial wellness, challenger banks, and insurtech. It has supported and validated nearly 50 fintechs. In 2021, we launched the Discovery Fund to support underrepresented entrepreneurs, who are building solutions for financial inclusion. It has funded 12 early- stage companies led by BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and women founders.
Some have talked of a funding slowdown. Do you expect 2022 to finish with lower funding totals than last year? Or will it build on the momentum?
McCluskey: Fintech continues to be a space for disruption and growth, presenting the industry with many opportunities to fund new solutions. The biggest fintech IPO of 2021 was Coinbase, which today has a market cap around $16bn. That seems like a large number, but it’s less than 5% of the market cap of the largest bank in the U.S., JP Morgan. Clearly, there is valuable market share still to be gained by fintechs. By capitalizing relevant and scalable companies, VCs can give fintechs the agility they need to compete in an increasingly active space.
2022 will build on several years of momentum – regardless of whether the final funding numbers are higher or lower than 2021. There is still a lot to do to keep pace with the rapid digitization of finance. Consumers expect Amazon-like speeds of interactions and a hyper-personalized, predictive experience. And businesses want their trusted financial institutions to deliver quick, frictionless decisions and client service. Financial services technology is primed for a future of tremendous growth for years to come.
Are we currently experiencing a fintech bubble? Do you think fintechs are overvalued?
McCluskey: It’s easy to get caught up in bubble talk, and there are certainly some frothy valuations in the private market in particular. However, there are many underlying opportunities for disruption and innovation, which leads me to believe the industry isn’t experiencing a bubble. What I do think we are seeing is fintech startups maturing to the point where they are being treated more like their “established” peers, and that is a good thing. While private markets may value potential in the form of user growth or even revenue generation, the public market wants to see profits.
Fintech companies that went public in 2021 have performed quite poorly vs the S&P, despite displaying strong revenue growth that in many cases exceeded expectations. The reason for this has been big misses on their earnings per share (EPS) results. For example, Robinhood’s user growth has been over 50% in the last year, and revenue nearly doubled. Yet they are down over 75% from their IPO price after disappointing from an earnings perspective. I don’t think we’ve seen a correction to the same extent in private markets yet, because companies are typically only resetting their price 1-2x per year when they raise a new round. So I expect private valuations to be a bit more tempered going forward.
What trends are you looking to invest in this year? Are there any specific trends you’re following?
McCluskey: As the Director of the Discovery Fund, I’m interested in fintechs focused on financial inclusion, specifically how we can make financial services more affordable and accessible to everyday Americans. This need only will grow in importance as people adjust to rising interest rates. Millennials and Gen Z have never experienced a sustained rising rate environment. Savers will be able to earn more, but borrowers will be impacted by higher rates for auto loans, mortgages, and personal loans. Our investments in portfolio companies like Climb, Line, and Zirtue will help them manage these uncharted waters.
I’m also interested in non-crypto applications of blockchain and distributed ledger tech, particularly in the mortgage industry. Use of these technologies has the potential to revolutionize the process of homebuying, as well as the secondary market for mortgages. A portfolio company of ours, Home Lending Pal, is working with IBM to make this process more seamless for both first time buyers and the financial institutions lending to them.
And lastly, I’m on the lookout for fintech solutions focused on the Latinx consumer. The GDP of this segment is growing 57% faster than the U.S.’s, according to a 2021 LDC U.S. Latino GDP report. Despite its size, the demographic continues to be an underserved market. Companies like Listo are building solutions to provide credit to Latinx consumers who are credit invisible yet display strong creditworthiness.
2021 was a record-making year for exits. Will we see increased M&A and IPO activity this year or are you expecting things to slow down?
McCluskey: M&A and IPO activity skyrocketed in 2021, yet the landscape may look a little different this year. Interest rates will play a factor in M&A, as borrowing money to fund acquisitions is expected to become more expensive. That said, if economic growth slows, then acquisitions are one way to bolster profits and growth.
Given the expected volatility in the public markets, I believe many companies will continue to raise VC dollars rather than following the IPO route, even if private market valuations take a hit. And we will continue to see the emergence of platforms for secondary transactions of private companies, which will enable employees to get liquidity even without an IPO.
Photo by Jeremy Levin