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A Piece of the P-E

You need more than deep pockets to enter and survive the world of private equity. You need connections, patience, and a fastidious accountant.

Think of private equity as a can of Red Bull for your personal portfolio. But there’s a catch: you have to wait 2 to 10 years for the rush to kick in.

Actually, there are several catches, including high entrance costs, complex record-keeping, and a curious mix of volatility (high) and risk (surprisingly low). Private equity isn’t for everyone — at least not yet — but if you’re an alpha-seeking risk-taker who enjoys the thrill of active investing, you too can get in on the party.

And what a party it is: last year, 359 funds raised $246 billion, up 52 percent from the year before and a 39 percent hike from the previous high mark set in 2000, according to Dow Jones’s Private Equity Analyst. Returns tend to average 20 to 25 percent. Moreover, private-equity investments are considered less risky than other high-yield plays, such as hedge funds or junk bonds. The trick is to pick top performers — on average only the top half beat the equities markets.

The main risk private equity poses to investors is illiquidity. “We tell clients not to expect any money back [from private-equity investments] for a long time,” says Bob Morgan, director of private equity for wealth management firm Northern Trust Global Advisors. First-round returns (distributions), which result either from the sale of portfolio companies or from stripping cash out of ongoing operations, don’t begin until 2 to 3 years after the initial pledge of cash. Furthermore, investors are locked into the investment until the fund is ready to close, generally 10 to 15 years from its inception.

If those terms suit you, good opportunities still exist, according to Brent Lipschultz, a personal-wealth specialist for accounting and advisory firm Eisner LLP. What’s more, PE offers diversification (returns tend not to correlate to those offered by stocks and bonds) and the investment is tax-efficient: virtually all gains are classified as long-term and are taxed at 15 percent rather than typically higher ordinary-income rates.

The Price of Admission

There are two ways to join the private-equity elite, with a third on the horizon. Investors can either participate directly or by buying into a fund of funds. Soon they may be able to buy stock in PE firms. In March, private-equity behemoth The Blackstone Group, which manages $28 billion worth of assets, announced plans to take a portion of its portfolio public and list common stock on the New York Stock Exchange. At press time, the date of the initial public offering had not been announced.

Becoming a direct investor is like joining a country club. Investors are welcomed on an invitation-only basis, and the chosen few usually hold some esteemed position or have a relationship with a current partner. Membership is pricey, with minimum investments hovering between $5 million and $10 million. Many funds prefer to limit themselves to a handful of institutional investors that can pony up $50 million to $100 million, in large part because they find that too many small investors can complicate the partnership structure.

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