In spite of the premature obituaries you may have read elsewhere, the long-term outlook for private equity remains strong. Yes, the contraction of credit markets is challenging for a sector that thrived on a diet of cheap, plentiful debt. And yes, some very large, risky buyouts at the top of the business cycle have dented PEs claim to be a credible owner of the very biggest companies. But to conclude that private equity is a busted flush would be to ignore a number of salient facts about the sector.
The private equity model, when well executed, has shown that it can outperform public equity markets in a wide variety of economic and capital market conditions. The qualifier is important. While the average PE funds performance has approximated to or even lagged the S&P 500 Index over the past 15 years, the top quartile of funds outperformed public equities by a wide margin and, importantly, came persistently from a relatively small cohort of leading PE firms.
Moreover, this investment performance was less dependent on leverage than often assumed. Our review of European buyouts by leading firms in the 10 years to 2005 found that investment returns had outpaced public equities in this period, even when the impact of higher leverage was excluded. To be sure, PE firms were happy to use leverage to further increase returns to equity. However, the root of their outperformance was not balance sheet bravado but rather a shareholder-oriented approach to corporate governance that allowed them to drive operational improvements and widen profit margins more quickly than companies listed on public markets.
Neither are leveraged buyouts necessarily the high-risk investments you might think. With the exception of some of the large top-of-market deals, PE firms have tended to buy relatively stable businesses to begin with. While debt may be higher than public market peers in the early years of the buyout, often it is paid down during the period of private ownership. By the time PE-owned companies come back to public markets they often carry less leverage than their listed competitors. Academic work suggests that the riskiness of PE investments, at least up to 2005, is about the same as that of the S&P 500.
All this suggests that the better PE firms have got what it takes to deliver competitive risk-adjusted returns even in an era of higher borrowing costs and less forgiving lenders. Some big investment institutions are starting to arrive at this conclusion. The Ohio Public Employees Retirement system last month announced plans to double its private equity investments to around $2 billion per year. CalPERS and CalSTERS, the giant public pension funds for California state employees, are making similar though less dramatic moves. With returns from public equity and debt markets expected to be low over the next few years, these investors see private equity again, well-executed as having an important role to play.
This is not to say that its business as usual in the PE world. As befits a more cautious environment, new funds will be significantly smaller than those raised before the financial crisis. This will challenge PE firms both to reassess investment strategies and, since smaller funds mean less income from management fees, to downsize their organizations. Equally, expect investors to negotiate harder on fees before committing capital.
Even so, with new money starting to trickle in, and an estimated $500 billion of dry powder awaiting deployment from previous rounds of fundraising, the PE industry is awash with capital. The big question is whether assets are available at prices sufficiently attractive and with operating upside sufficiently clear both to compete with synergy-seeking corporate acquirers and to generate the above-market returns required by investors.
There are two reasons for cautious optimism on this score. First, while asset prices are hardly at bargain-basement levels, prices certainly have fallen from the peak. Moreover, competition for private equity transactions is less intense following the shake-out among mid-sized PE firms. Historically, this type of down cycle (the fifth in the past 30 years) has led to less expensive acquisitions and, in turn, potential for higher returns.
Second, new arenas for investment are opening up. For example, governments globally have pledged to invest $1.6 trillion in infrastructure roads, bridges, airports and the like equivalent to roughly 9 percent of all government spending. The potential for public-private partnerships has not been lost on the PE community.
None of this is to deny the very real challenges facing the PE sector: recession-hit portfolio companies, anxious and more demanding investors, cautious lenders, smaller funds. Even so, we believe reports of the imminent demise of private equity are greatly exaggerated. Good private equity firms those with real deal-making and operational management expertise will continue to thrive.