The State of Private Equity – Part I

The State of Private Equity – Part I

Part I: Short-term bear

Most signs today indicate private equity’s record-setting performance over the first half of the year is set to come to an end. Here’s why:

A March 2022 report from consulting giants McKinsey & Co. had reported the exceptional degree to which private markets had rallied post the year of pandemic-driven turbulence. Growing at an exceptional 20%, fundraising was up to a record of almost $1.2 trillion; “dealmakers were busier than ever, deploying $3.5 trillion across asset classes; and assets under management (AUM) grew to an all-time high of $9.8 trillion as of July, up from $7.4 trillion the year before.”

Image source: McKinsey & Co. research

The rally is, however, set to slow considerably.

Headwinds galore

Most signs today indicate private equity’s record-setting performance over the first half of the year is set to come to an end, colliding directly with headwinds such as the war in Ukraine, election politics, the end of the business cycle and decade-high inflation numbers in developed markets.

“Uncertainty around inflation and asset valuations has slowed deal pipelines, and first-half data already shows a sharp decrease in exit and fund-raising activity. Smart investors aren’t waiting for more clarity; they are already running downturn scenarios against their portfolios and making critical adjustments to their due diligence approach,” according to research from Bain & Co.

With recession risks looming heavily on the horizon – most developed economies expect to hit recession by the end of this year or early the next – data suggests firms that have never coped with surging inflation earlier are now having to deal with the increased costs and pressures of a high-inflation environment. The effect, however, is mostly expected to be short-term rather than medium or long-term. Bain & Co. writes:

Slowing investment activity

“The good news is that inflation-recession cycles can be relatively short-lived. And the long-term outlook for private equity remains as strong as ever. Limited partners (LPs) have consistently signaled their intent to maintain or increase PE allocations. They remain confident in the fact that PE returns outpace other asset classes.”

Over $3.6 trillion had been set aside in ‘dry powder’, i.e. in unallocated committed capital, and general partners (GPs) are already preparing for the recovery on the other end of the downturn. This becomes especially relevant given the strength of returns seen in the wake of recessionary pressures.

Signs that things may get a little choppy in the near term are already evident.

Bain reports, “Globally, private equity generated $512 billion in buyout deal value during the first half of 2022, putting it on pace to produce the second-highest annual total ever (behind 2021’s all-time record). The 18-month total of $1.7 trillion is by far the strongest year and a half in the industry’s history. The average deal size remained close to $1 billion in the first half, and the deal count was robust.”

Image source: Bain & Co. research

Investment activity going into the second half of the year is, however, slowing down. Dealmaking in sectors such as technology, for example, is down considerably amidst rising borrowing costs owing to central banks raising their key policy rates in response to decade-high inflationary pressures. 

“Facing losses on loans committed before the slowdown, banks are asking a lot more questions about a company’s exposure to inflation and rising rates, making it harder to close transactions. There’s always a lag in private mark-to-market reporting, but indications are that private multiples are heading lower, taking their cue from the recent slide in public valuations.”

Experts consider inflation and valuation uncertainties to have the highest impact on US markets, with Europe usually less sensitive to tech trend-induced market volatilities. Europe, however, has its own set of problems in its basket – led by war in Ukraine, supply chain disruptions, and soaring energy costs. Asia has remained a mixed bag so far. While COVID-19–related shutdowns in China – the largest private equity market in the region – have put a spanner into newer investments, other markets such as South Korea and Japan have held up much better so far.

[Read on in Part-II]

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