Monday, March 23, 2009

In the Hot Seat: Private Equity and the Financial Crisis

by Sherif H. Elkholy

Private Equity History
For a long time spanning from the 1980s private equity has been one of the main drivers of market-based finance, catalyzing the transformation of the processes and institutions of direct finance. Back then private equity was a specialized form of finance characterized by its long-term investment strategy, its hands-on approach, and its capacity to add tangible value by investing in companies. This changed significantly over the 2003-2007 boom cycle: private equity was no longer confined to savvy investors, it no longer needed to have a long-term horizon, and it no longer needed to add real value in order to make money. This was made possible by three factors: a seemingly endless supply of cheap debt (annual LBO debt issuance rose from $71 billion in 2003 to $669 in 2007), growing reported profits across all sectors (16% annual growth in the S&P 500 earnings from 2003 to 2007), escalating asset prices (41% growth in US valuation multiples and 43% in European valuation multiples between 2003 and 2007), and more portfolio allocations to private equity by institutional investors (around triple the historical amounts). Then came the perfect storm.

Where it Currently Stands
The financial crisis has hit all the pressure points of private equity at once. Corporate earnings are down thus negatively effecting the financial position and the fundamental value of companies owned by private equity funds. Asset prices are also down, thus deferring any divestiture of companies by private equity owners. More critically, debt markets are extremely tight, virtually freezing the previously flourishing leveraged buy-out market. Finally, portfolio allocation to private equity by institutional investors is down due to limited liquidity and heavy losses across all asset classes. The immediate problem which private equity has to wrestle with is keeping it’s investments afloat. It is unavoidable that many private equity owned companies will default on their debt obligations- simply because the debt levels piled up during the boom years are not in line with current earnings. However, every cloud has a silver lining. Amidst the financial crisis many babies are being thrown out with the bath water- the smartest private equity companies will pick up under-valued high quality businesses for a fraction of the fair value... if they have the liquidity to do so.

The Future of Private Equity
Private equity is facing the ultimate truth test. A close look at the private equity model of the 1980s reveals that private equity had a lot of shared similarities with bank-based finance: investment decisions premised on relationships and knowledge of companies, hands-on control, monitoring through board representation, active management, and long-term “buy and hold” approach. Private equity needs to re-invent itself back to this initial form and it needs to do so fast to guarantee a place in the new financial system which will rise from the ashes of the global crisis. Whatever form private equity will take in the coming years, it will most certainly involve less fees, more work, real operational value-add, and less debt. For the real economy, perhaps this shake out is not so bad after all.

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