Down but Not Out

Private equity may have lost some of its leverage, but it's still a force for companies looking to buy, sell, or just attract capital.

The recent falloff in private-equity activity could hardly have been more precipitous. As credit markets tightened, the value of the leveraged buyouts (LBOs) done in the third quarter plunged nearly 80 percent, to $67 billion. Money-raising, meanwhile, fell by half, with PE firms closing only $91 billion of funds, according to industry researcher Private Equity Intelligence (PEI).

Since then, fund managers have been planning for a less ambitious 2008. “As an industry, we will invest fewer dollars over the next couple of years,” says David Donnini, a principal at GTCR Golder Rauner, a PE firm on its ninth fund. “That’s just a function of the math. We won’t be able to reach every seller’s asking price.”

But don’t cry for private equity just yet. Plenty of “uncalled” capital — about $496 billion, according to PEI — still sits in PE firms’ funds. In addition, secondary buyers of private-equity limited partnerships have raised $18 billion this year alone, more than double that raised in 2006.

Meanwhile, the more limited role of private equity in mergers and acquisitions will benefit strategic buyers, which were largely outbid by PE firms the past two years, says Tiff Armstrong, a partner at investment bank Harris Williams & Co. “The choppiness also creates opportunity,” he says. “It allows [firms] to reset expectations of valuation.”

On the receiving end, public companies and entrepreneurial concerns will find PE firms still willing to invest in them — under the right circumstances. “Growth equity” investments could become more popular, benefiting companies that need liquidity but not a controlling partner. PE firms, instead of sweating through negotiations over a $5 billion LBO, already are finding time to bring their operating expertise to bear on investments.

“While not looking at the mega-LBO transactions of the sort they did six to nine months ago, there’s no question my clients are still looking to invest,” says Jon Garcia, a director in McKinsey & Co.’s Washington, D.C., office.

Equity Resurgent

More deals could resemble Kohlberg Kravis Roberts’s (KKR) private investment in public equity (PiPE) involvement with Sun Microsystems last January. As of late October, there had been 1,069 announced PiPE deals worth $39.9 billion, up 41 percent over last year, according to Sagient Research Systems.

For the PE firm, “the negative is that it does not have complete control,” says Steven Kaplan, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Management. “The positive is they don’t pay a premium — they’re usually doing the deal at the market price.”

Originally PiPEs were designed to be last-resort funding. But Sun Microsystems had different aims when it entered discussions with KKR a year ago, says Sun CFO Michael Lehman. “We were emerging from a few tough years,” he says. “We were not profitable. The appeal was an endorsement by a very big, well-known investment firm.”

The deal also gave Sun new prospects. Chief information officers from the KKR stable have visited Sun’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, to explore Sun technology. In addition, the due-diligence process with KKR “was an acid test of our vision, strategy, and execution plans,” says Sun’s finance chief.


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