Private equity is done. Stick a fork in it. With Kraft singles and Heinz ketchup as toppings, there are many signs that private equity has peaked as an asset class.
Sure, private equity is pervasive, which is one of its problems. According to Dow Jones LP Source, 765 funds raised $266 billion in 2014, up 11.7% over 2013. Ever since David Swensen, the investment manager of the Yale University endowment, almost 30 years ago began successfully allocating outsize portions of the portfolio to “alternate” assets, especially private equity, the so-called Swensen model has been widely duplicated. Last week the Stanford endowment named Swensen-disciple Robert Wallace as CEO. There is a lot of capital chasing similar deals.
When it comes down to it, private equity is pretty simple. You buy a company, putting up some cash and borrowing the rest, sometimes from banks but often via exotic instruments that Wall Street is happy to sell. Then you manage the company for cash flow, making sure you can make interest payments with enough left over for fees and investor dividends. With enough cash flow, you either take the company public or sell it to someone else. And how do you generate cash flow? You can expand the company, but more likely you slash costs, close divisions, cut staff, curtail marketing, eliminate research and development and more. In other words, cutting to the bone.
The Swenson model has worked for the past three decades. But it’s a bull-market investment vehicle whose time is done. Here are the main reasons private equity has peaked—the first four are reasonably obvious, but the last one is the killer.
First, interest rates are going up. As they say on “Game of Thrones,” winter is coming. The Federal Reserve will no longer be “patient” on raising rates. This year? Next year? It doesn’t matter. Rising interest rates mean private equity will see higher costs of capital, wreaking havoc on Excel spreadsheets justifying future returns.
Second, as The Wall Street Journal pointed out last week, banks are slowing lending for leveraged deals. Since 2013, regulators have been discouraging leverage above six times earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, or Ebitda, a measure of cash flow. Leveraged loans are the lifeblood of private equity; limits are already crimping the ability to do deals.