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How will a double-dip recession really affect tech IPOs?

September 6, 2011: 11:43 AM ET

The hunger for new IPOs may be cooling, but the valuations of tech startups had been overheated. That could mean the better candidates will slide through, but maybe at a lower price than they had been expecting.

ZyngaFORTUNE -- Walk around business districts in San Francisco or Palo Alto long enough and you may forget the rest of the country is fretting over a double-dip recession. Many parts of the tech industry -- particularly those involving the social web or cloud computing -- seem oddly decoupled from the broader economy.

Which raises a question: Would a double-dip recession put much of a dent in the high valuations accorded the top web companies? A few months ago I noted that some non-tech threats like Europe's debt crisis or the end of the Fed's generous quantitative-easing policy could weaken the stock market and therefore soften demand for many tech IPOs. It's hardly a surprise that those threats became real problems. But now, we have a clearer idea of how tech startups aiming to go public will be affected.

In short, the stronger IPO candidates will still slide easily into the public markets. Their heady valuations, however, may have to take an unwelcome haircut.

Growing, profitable companies are always welcomed by public markets in all but the most bearish of times. Despite a spurious report this week that Zynga may delay its planned IPO by a couple of months, there is ample evidence that the stock market isn't hostile to tech IPOs. It's just getting more finicky.

So far, according to Renaissance Capital, 198 companies have filed to go public this year. At that pace, 2011 is likely to see 300 companies file for IPOs, making it as busy as 2007, the last year before the market turmoil. Many of the companies braving IPO waters, of course, are Internet startups. The past two weeks alone has seen several make their initial filings: Angie's List, a site offering reviews for local businesses; Bazaarvoice, which monitors social commerce activity; Brightcove, a cloud-based software company; Jive Software, a social-networking platform for companies; and, Eloqua, a business-software company. Some of these companies, like Brightcove, are profitable. Others, like Jive, are not.

What's changing is that it's much harder for any and all Internet IPOs to receive a green light. Already, 43 companies have withdrawn their IPOs from the queue in the last 8 months, compared with 51 withdrawals in all 12 months of 2007. In other words, it's harder for questionable IPOs to find a warm reception in this volatile market. And those that manage to list are stumbling at the gate -- as Chinese video site Toudu (TUDO) did, falling 18% in its first two weeks in the market.

For a profitable and well-managed company like Zynga, the turbulent stock market is more of an inconvenience than a quandary. As Dan Primack pointed out recently, Zynga had $966 million in cash in March, having generated $104 million in operating cash flow in the previous three months. The most successful and hottest startups will be able to tap the private markets with no problem. Many institutional funds that would buy into, say, a Zynga IPO could also participate in a private round of financing.

And there isn't any indication that the market for privately held tech shares is anywhere as volatile as the public markets. (Yes, transactions on secondary markets are by nature more illiquid, but then again they aren't buffeted with the manic antics of high-frequency trading.) According to Sharespost, the implied valuation accorded to Facebook shares in recent sales of private shares is $80 billion, roughly equal to the company's valuation through the summer. But the public market may not be so generous if Facebook were to go public.

In fact, a sluggish stock market could, by making IPOs a less appealing exit, strengthen the appeal of private markets as startups tap them to raise additional capital or help early investors cash out. Some startups, like Facebook, prefer to stay private, and a weak IPO market could help them win or maintain exemptions to SEC rules that would otherwise force them into an IPO.

In the long-term, the bigger threat to tech IPOs isn't the weak stock market, but the reason the stock market remains weak: consumer spending is down and is unlikely to come back. That could slow revenue at companies like Zynga and dampen advertising that has fueled Facebook's growth. If that happens, these companies will still be able to finance operations with cash flow, and hold on for an IPO once things improve. But their growth rates -- and therefore their valuations -- will suffer, and they may regret not going public in the summer of 2011 when the going was relatively good.

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