rockwellPlease, God, just one more bubble. If the tech industry is to hold onto its reputation as a miraculous fountain of wealth, the ongoing parade of M&A exits for startup companies needs to morph into an IPO bandwagon. IPOs create wealth, jobs and irrational — but necessary — enthusiasm for further tech innovations.

Sad to say, it’s not happening yet. The number of venture-backed companies that went public in 2008 and 2009 was the lowest for any two-year period since 1974-75, according to data published this morning by the National Venture Capital Association and Thomson Reuters. Instead, there was a modest uptick in acquisitions. (Dow Jones VentureSource published similar findings today.)

There were only five venture-backed IPOs in the fourth quarter of 2009, according to NVCA’s report, totaling 13 for the entire year. That’s double the count for 2008, but it’s nothing compared to the 94 IPOs in 2004 or the 86 in 2007. The largest IPO of last quarter was a $300 million offering by KAR Auction Services, an automotive services holding firm based in Carmel, Indiana. (Carmel is also the home of top mobile search service ChaCha.)

As for mergers and acquisitions, NVCA counted 67 deals, of which 36 were disclosed. The average sale price was $215.9 million, the highest since the fourth quarter of 2007.

With only a handful of IPOs, drilling down into them to plot industry trends would be a study in bad math. I’m sure someone will do it anyway. But let’s be clear: The only verifiable trend is “No IPOs.” For example, NVCA notes that the average offer amount for IPOs in 2009 was $149.4 million, higher than any year from 2004 to 2008. That sounds great, until you read that the total size of the IPO market was only $1.9 billion, one-fifth that of banner years 2004 and 2007.

Yes, there’s a general consensus that liquidity is returning to the tech sector. But funders, founders and startup employees didn’t go into tech in hopes of a modest acquisition. We want the IPOs. Lots of ’em.

[Illustration: Norman Rockwell. Charts: NVCA]

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