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A distinguished University of Chicago financial economist and longtime observer of private equity markets responds to questions like the following:

  • With a track record that now stretches in some cases almost 30 years, what have private equity firms accomplished? What effects have they had on the performance of the companies they invest in, and have they been good for the economy?
  • How will highly leveraged PE portfolio companies fare during the current downturn, especially with over $400 billion of loans coming due in the next three to five years?
  • With PE firms now sitting on an estimated $500 billion in capital and leveraged loan markets shut down, are the firms now contemplating new kinds of investment that require less debt?
  • If and when the industry makes a comeback, do you expect any major changes that might allow us to avoid another boom-and-bust cycle? Have the PE firms or their investors made any obvious mistakes that contribute to such cycles, and are they now showing any signs of having learned from those mistakes?

Despite the current problems, the operating capabilities of the best PE firms, together with their ability to manage high leverage and the increased receptiveness of public company CEOs and boards to PE investments, have all helped establish private equity as “a permanent asset class.” Although many of the deals done in 2006 and 2007 were probably overpriced, the “cov-lite” deal structures, deferred repayments of principal, and larger coverage ratios have afforded more room for reworking troubled deals. As a result of that flexibility, and of the kinds of companies that get taken private in leveraged deals in the first place, most troubled PE portfolio companies should end up being restructured efficiently, thereby limiting the damage to the overall economy.

Part of the restructuring process involves the use of the PE industry's huge stockpile of capital to purchase distressed debt and inject new equity into troubled deals (in many cases, their own). At the same time the PE firms have been working hard to rescue their own deals, some have been taking significant minority positions in public companies, while gaining some measure of control.

Finally, to limit overpriced and overlev-eraged deals in the future, and so avoid the boom-and-bust cycle that appears to have become a predictable part of the industry, the discussion explores the possibility that the limited partners and debt providers that supply most of the capital for PE investments will insist on larger commitments of equity by sponsors to their own funds and individual deals.