Saturday, March 14, 2009

Richard Friedman’s perspective on the Private Equity industry

Richard Friedman’s address (Head of Merchant Banking at Goldman Sachs) turned out to be a whirlwind tour of what he’s seen of the private equity industry over the years, growing from a billion dollars in size in 1991 with 4 key firms to 545 billion dollars in size in 2008 with over 200 major funds. As usual, the barrage of information spawned many questions.

Some things he touched upon:
1> Anticyclical behavior of the industry
The 2001-2003 period had modest activity due to the economic conditions, however, the returns from the investments then varied from 25% to a 100%.
2> Trends in valuations
Alluding to the valuations being optimistic, almost driven by multiples of peak earnings instead of multiples of earnings.
3> Targeting large companies
Specifically points included financing, the 2001-2003 downturn’s lag effects, and compensation limits on management.

Evaluating (read critically questioning) these 3 trends is an interesting exercise, and got me thinking about corporate governance and leadership. More about it in my post on “Private Equity Firms and Large Company Acquisitions”.

The period from 1989 to 1999 saw investments totaling $250 billion, while the 18 month period from 2005 to July 2007 saw 1.2 Trillion dollars worth of investments.

Encouraging an idea out of left field, at the risk of sounding flippant, could you call this the biggest bailout (read takeover, or turnaround, or even protection) of American Enterprise in history? More about it in my blog on “Is Private Equity The American Industry that protects American Enterprise?”

Think About The Future
Equally interesting were thoughts about the future. Where do we go from here?

Bargain Hunting for Investments
Just like the 2001-2003 period, there are bargain purchase opportunities. However, any change of direction from the fund’s stated strategy would concern the LPs.

This leads to a set of follow up thoughts:
What more can GPs do to account for bankruptcy risk?
Does the answer lie in more robust valuation scenarios (akin to the bank stress tests) and due diligence?
Given the increased riskiness of investments, would PE funds start looking like VC funds?

How can GPs and CFOs of the funds work more closely with LPs?
What kind of downside protection can a GP provide an LP?

How do funds deal with liquidity challenges?
Does the senior loan market now resemble that in the 60s and the 70s?
If necessary, how would GPs buy senior debt in their portfolio companies and still ensure incentives are aligned correctly?

How would CFOs of funds categorize their LPs to get buy in on any style drift, assuming that’s a risk they are willing to take, and that there are funds available?
How would your approach be different when it comes to large institutional investors?

Managing Organizations
Given the economic environment, management teams may begin to think that they don’t have the incentives anymore for change. Persistent communication to align the investment perspective and the managers on the ground is a quick start- however; would it make sense to explore other initiatives like team building?

What do you think?

The Usual Disclaimer: This is purely a knowledge sharing resource and I have been careful to protect panelist interests. Ethically, context is everything, and I will gladly retract anything that affects the parties mentioned. Call this my mini OpenCourseWare, if you will, where Open signifies life experiences.

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