Public vs. Private Equity*


  • John J. Moon

    1. Founding partner and managing director of Metalmark Capital LLC, an independent private equity firm established by principals of Morgan Stanley Capital Partners. He holds a Ph.D. as well as an A.M. and A.B. from Harvard University. He is also an adjunct professor of finance at the Columbia Business School.
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    This article draws on the author's previous article on private equity published by Oil & Gas Investor.


Many corporate executives view private equity as a last resort, as expensive capital that should be tapped only by companies that don't have access to presumably cheaper public equity. The reality of private equity, however, is more complex, and potentially quite rewarding, for both shareholders and management. This paper surveys some of the academic work on the costs and benefits of public vs. private equity, contrasting the private equity investment process with its public counterpart and exploring how such a process may add value.

The importance of public equity, particularly for very large companies and growth companies with large capital requirements, is indisputable. But as investment bankers and other practitioners have noted, under certain circumstances the public markets effectively become “closed” to some public companies. Moreover, the cost of equity raised in public markets involves much more than the direct costs of underwriters, attorneys, and accountants. Some indication of the indirect costs is provided by the market's typically negative reaction to announcements of seasoned equity offerings. Although the negative reaction averages about 3%, in some cases stock prices drop by as much as 10%, thereby diluting the value of existing stockholders. Most academics attribute this reaction to the informational disadvantage of public stockholders.

Private equity is designed in large part to overcome this information problem by replacing the monitoring performed by the typical public company board with the oversight of better informed and more highly motivated owners. A growing body of academic research suggests that private equity investors add value to the companies they invest in, and that the best investors are consistently effective in so doing.

What's more, even public companies that tap private equity seem to benefit. As the author found in his own research on PIPES (Private Investment in Public Equity Securities) transactions, even though such securities are issued to private equity investors at a discount to the prevailing market price, the average market response to the announcement of such transactions is a positive 10%. In short, the participation of private equity investors is perceived to create value, and some of this value is shared with the rest of the market.