|Private Equity Fundraising Hits a New Record|
With some $621 billion raised for private equity funds last year, 2017 finally surpassed the longstanding fundraising record of 2008, when $557 billion was raised across all PE strategies and regions, according to industry estimates. This year should set a new annual fundraising record of $750 billion, based on calculations of rising allocations to PE from existing investors and estimates of fresh capital from new investors.1 A particularly slow upward march of interest rates and private equity’s credible promise of double-digit annual returns is fueling ever-greater investor allocations to PE. Incidentally, this fundraising estimate does not include the tens of billions that Norway’s $1.1 trillion Government Pension Fund Global, the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund and potentially this year’s most significant new PE investor may shortly decide to invest in the asset category.
|Larger and Larger Funds are Raised|
Private equity fund size records are being quickly achieved only to be quickly broken. Last year saw Apollo close the largest buyout fund ever at $24.7 billion and KKR gather $13.9 billion for the biggest ever North American PE pool. Silver Lake raised $15 billion, briefly an unprecedented sum for a technology-focused vehicle, only to be surpassed by SoftBank’s $98 billion Vision Fund, the largest tech pool and the biggest PE fund ever – four times the size of the Apollo fund. Investors are limiting relationships to make portfolios manageable and doubling down on managers they trust. Whenever they can, they’re also investing more in one go, keeping liquid, low yielding investments to a minimum. In a recent Palico investor survey, 50 percent of investors and managers said that managers would shortly raise a significant number of $30 billion-plus PE funds. Moreover, 56 percent believe that in the next three-to-five years the $98 billion Vision Fund will be surpassed.
|‘Alternative PE’ Funds Emerge as a Source of Alpha|
In the last six years, average private equity fund size has nearly doubled to $1.3 billion. Yet larger mainstream funds competing against each other are having a tougher time producing the kind of outsize returns for which PE – historically characterized by smaller funds and inefficient markets – is celebrated. There is mounting evidence that sector-focused PE funds and emerging managers, those raising their first or second fund, outperform the typical later-generation mainstream fund. The result is a growing willingness on the part of investors to invest in specialists and emerging managers – what Palico dubs alternative PE – even as overall average fund size gets bigger. A barbell investing style will take firm root in 2018, with limited partners putting large sums to work in big funds, but seeking a bigger bang for their buck by investing smaller sums in alternative PE.
|Private Debt Funds Continue Their Rise|
In the five years through this past June, the assets managed by private debt funds tripled in size to $475 billion. The funds have offered limited partners low double-digit annual returns with minimal risk during a period of historically subdued interest rates. Global liquidity is now at an unprecedented level – even as benchmark interest rates slowly rise – and the typical annual return of private debt funds is down to the high single-digits. Yet that return is still well above what’s available in credit markets of similar risk profile. This makes the continued growth of private debt funds a virtual certainty in 2018. Looking to 2018 and beyond, when PE managers expand product ranges, it’s more than likely that they’ll do so through a private debt fund. Analysis of creditworthiness neatly complements equity analysis, and extending debt to the same types of companies in which managers invest, keeps PE firms within marketable specialties. Credit provision equally offers insight. In an increasingly competitive market, that edge is often critical for profitable equity investment.
|GP Consolidation Picks Up Pace|
As forecast in my last private equity outlook, mergers and acquisitions bringing two or more PE managers together – previously rare outside of the funds-of-funds space – took off in 2017. The floodgates were opened by a landmark 2016 deal that saw two highly regarded general partners, L Capital and Catterton merge from positions of strength. M&A among fund managers had until then frequently been seen as a necessity brought on by crisis. Deals done between strong partners last year ranged from the big, Eurazeo’s purchase of Idinvest, to the small, Apax France’s acquisition of small cap specialist EPF Partners. Activity is set to ratchet up significantly again. Midsized and smaller managers now see M&A as a stigma-free means to combat rising marketing and regulatory costs as investors commit more to fewer managers.
|More Leverage Means Rising Secondary Value and Volume|
Leverage, used to buy stakes in funds that are done fundraising and that have begun investing, is reconciling buyers in private equity’s secondary market – who have traditionally wanted discounts to net asset value – with sellers who only sell funds at par or above. Rarely employed four years ago, leverage, in the form of debt, deferred payments and preferred equity, accounted for an all-time high of 23 percent of record secondary volume of $45 billion in 2017. It also fueled record pricing, with the typical fund purchased on the secondary market selling at 96 percent of its net asset value, surpassing the previous annual high of 94 percent in 2015 and 2014.1 The recent emergence of scores of banks and private funds eager to provide low-risk leverage to buyers of secondary funds should see the levered portion of the market hit a new high in 2018 of 30 percent or more of total value, driving new pricing and volume records.
|Restructurings Rise to a Third of Secondaries|
Accounting for a record 24 percent of secondary volume in 2017, up from 20 percent the previous year and some 5 percent a decade earlier, fund restructuring – the collective transfer of PE fund ownership from one group of investors to another – is set for further innovation and growth this year. Such deals should rise to a third of volume in 2018, fueled by innovations like ‘strip’ transactions. In strips, exposure to a certain type of asset that some fund investors like but others dislike is reduced or eliminated through a spin-out of the investments into a new vehicle, usually managed by the same general partner. Done right, strips offer all investors a welcome pay out. Bulls double down on the strip assets by investing in the new fund, often alongside new investors, while a new stand-alone fund category is added to the GP’s product range. Meanwhile, the original fund’s bears are reassured as exposure to the controversial assets is reduced. The UK assets of global funds could be ripe for strip deals in 2018, given deeply divided opinion concerning the opportunities and challenges posed by Brexit.
|The Transparency of Private Equity Funds Increases|
Many speculate that 2018 will see a Trump-inspired roll back of transparency in the core U.S. private equity market. Yet regardless of the fate of Obama-era Dodd Frank regulations concerning PE, or of U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission oversight of the industry, the clarity of PE fund terms and performance will improve both in the U.S. and globally in 2018, driven by demanding institutional investors and, even more importantly, by the strong desire of fund managers to win significant investment from individuals. High net worth individuals and the family offices and registered investment advisers that serve them are currently in the sights of PE managers, while beyond 2018 managers have their focus trained on the mass retail market. The only way to significantly increase the appeal of PE for individuals – apart from sovereign wealth funds, the sole credible replacement for commitments from disappearing discretionary pension vehicles – is through increased transparency.
|Private Equity Becomes (More) Comfortable with Digital|
Private equity managers and investors are keen to own companies in the tech sector and eager to employ digital innovation to improve performance at portfolio companies. But they have been notoriously slow to adopt new technology for their own operations. This has begun to change and the adoption of technology by both fund managers and investors shows every sign of accelerating in 2018. Last year, a few cutting edge general partners, mainly headquartered in Europe, began using blockchain – the technology behind virtual currencies – to track and quickly share information on transactions, cash flows, contracts and regulatory compliance. In California, some venture capital fund managers are now using artificial intelligence systems to screen investment opportunities. Meanwhile, a summer survey from Coller Capital shows that three out of four of the world’s investors believe they could significantly improve their PE programs through better use of “external data sources,” a catchall category that includes everything from third party software and cloud applications to digital marketplaces like Palico. Growing investment in alternative PE funds, smaller and harder to find than mainstream vehicles (discussed above), should in particular benefit digital marketplaces.
|U.S. Tax Changes Improve Private Equity Returns|
While there have been some alarmist claims that U.S. tax changes coming into operation this year are negative for private equity returns and for the compensation of fund managers, the opposite is true. Average yearly interest payments at PE portfolio companies in the U.S. are between 32 percent and 42 percent of annual cash flow, not much above the new deductibility cap on interest payments – set at 30 percent of corporate cash flow. In isolation, the deductibility cap would modestly impact PE returns. But any deleterious fallout will be more than offset in 2018 and beyond by the general corporate tax cut from 35 percent to 21 percent – an enormous boon to private equity returns, and by extension to the carried interest compensation of fund managers. The tax reform measure that lengthens the time needed for fund managers to qualify for favorable carried interest tax treatment to three years from one year will also have an impact that pales in comparison to the effect of the corporate tax cut – today only 11 percent of portfolio companies are sold in less than three years.
1 Source: Triago
|$227 Million Invested via Palico|
In the last year alone, limited partners have invested $227 million, overwhelmingly in smaller and more specialized funds, via Palico’s online private equity fund marketplace. Palico is an increasingly recognized source for off-the-beaten-path fundraisings and secondaries. Its digital marketplace is making private equity an alternative investment category once again, even as the overall industry becomes mainstream.