U.S. venture capital firms raised more money last quarter than they did during parts of last year, but the industry is still off its game, according to new data reported today by the National Venture Capital Association and Thomson Reuters (PDF). Notably, its figures conflict with those published last week by Dow Jones — figures that suggested a positive trend.

The NVCA states that 32 venture capital funds raised a total of $3.6 billion in the first quarter of 2010, representing a 31 percent decline in dollar amounts and a 44 percent decline in number of deals from the first quarter of 2009. This makes last quarter the slowest opening quarter the industry has seen since 1993, the association points out.

Dow Jones is clearly working off a different set of numbers. Its results, released on Tuesday, showed $4.1 billion raised across 34 funds last quarter — which it said was a 41 percent jump from the first quarter of 2009. Dow Jones reported a little under $3 billion raised by fewer than 30 funds in Q1 2009, whereas the NVCA shows $5.3 billion raised by 57 funds during the same period. It’s unclear whether methodology accounts for the discrepancy, but we have contacted both groups for comment.

Regardless, the new NVCA numbers seem to fit more neatly with the venture capital trends making headlines recently. First and foremost, firms have had a much harder time raising funds due to the frozen exit market, as NVCA President Mark Heesen points out. Many of them have suspended fundraising activity completely, waiting for the situation to thaw.

Firms have also been suffering from a general over-investment in venture capital as an asset class, resulting in anemic returns. Essentially, there is too much money, and too few promising startups to receive it.

This problem has actually started to thin the ranks of established firms, with many of the older players finding themselves left behind. Such is the plight of Bay Partners, one of Silicon Valley’s oldest firms, founded in 1976. It just lost three of its youngest, most ambitious partners to greener pastures — probably smaller, nimbler firms investing in emerging technologies, as we’ve seen before.

The shakeup at Bay has even triggered a “key-man” clause, allowing the firm’s limited partners to pull their money out given major personnel shifts. It won’t be surprising if other aging firms also run aground in the next year. Most analysts agree the venture capital industry is headed into an intense period of consolidation in order to grapple with new investing needs and realities.

The NVCA also reported that only five of the 32 funds that raised money last quarter were first funds launched by new firms. This is a stat that could change radically as younger partners break off from established firms to explore opportunities on their own.

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