Mutual funds are valuing unicorns like WeWork and Sweetgreen very differently. Now the SEC is paying more attention to these private stakes.


Adam Neumann, CEO of WeWork

  • The biggest unicorn companies, like Airbnb and WeWork, are valued very differently by mutual fund investors like Fidelity, T. Rowe Price, and more. 
  • Academics have found mutual fund valuations for the largest private companies in particular can range widely.
  • “Any valuation is guesswork because there’s no continuous marketplace,” said Yiming Qian, a professor now at the University of Connecticut who studied the topic. 
  • The SEC has had conversations with executives at asset managers and other financial services firms about private company valuations, sources have told Business Insider. 
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For the most part, mutual funds agree on how to value shares they own in private companies.  

The process is often simple, with the funds sticking to valuations determined by venture capital investments, according to research from Drexel professors Michelle Lowry and Sungjoung Kwon and University of Connecticut professor Yiming Qian.

“There are some cases where they give different valuations, but it’s very rare,” Lowry told Business Insider.

But for the biggest unicorns, like Airbnb and WeWork, mutual funds are much more active in coming up with their own numbers, leading to different valuations at different managers, said Qian.

“Funds pay more attention” to the biggest names, Qian said. “It’s debatable how active they should be with the valuation.”

The SEC has had conversations with executives at asset managers and other financial services firms about  valuations of private companies, according to three people with knowledge of the discussions. It is unclear if the SEC will take any regulatory action, but recent liquidity crunches in Europe have increased awareness of the potential pitfalls of fund holdings in private companies. 

Same investment, different price (1)

Fidelity’s massive Contrafund is bullish on WeWork but bearish on Airbnb compared to fellow asset manager T. Rowe Price. And there’s a more than $25-per-share difference between Fidelity and Morgan Stanley’s valuation of WeWork, SEC filings show.

Even differences in valuations of a dollar or two per share can have big implications for the mutual fund’s overall stakes.    

The fund managers mentioned in this story either declined to comment on the valuation of individual securities or did not respond to requests for comment. 

Managers have independent valuation committees to evaluate their investments, but many do not update the price until something like a new funding round or a management change happens, Lowry and Qian said. 

“They’re just relying on what the VCs are telling them, clearly,” Lowry said.

See more: The SEC is scrutinizing whether mutual funds need to shed more light on stakes in unicorns like WeWork and Airbnb — and it could mean more protections for mom-and-pop investors

Regulations prevent mutual funds from holding more than 15% of their assets in private companies, but the SEC is still keeping tabs on the funds’ creep into private markets. 

The biggest funds at Fidelity and T. Rowe rarely see private companies make up 5% of their portfolios, much less 15%. But smaller funds looking to beat the market have been pushing closer to the cap. The Davis Opportunity Fund, which runs roughly half of a billion dollars, lists Asian unicorns DiDi and Grab as two of its top seven holdings. 

Grab, a food delivery app based in Singapore, and DiDi, a ride-sharing competitor to Uber and Lyft based in China, make up just under 10% of the fund’s assets. In public filings, the asset manager acknowledges that the valuation includes  “subjective factors” that create the “unavoidable” risk of  being off the mark. 

“I think it’s still difficult from the outside to see how each of these committees are actually functioning,” said Katie Reichart, who has written about the topic for Morningstar.

“It’s a big, time-intensive process” for mutual funds to evaluate private companies, Reichart said. 

Until the companies go public, the true market value of these private companies is unknown, a potential problem for mutual funds that offer daily liquidity and require constant updates on their portfolio holdings.

“Any valuation is guesswork because there’s no continuous marketplace for these companies,” Qian said. 

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