Private Equity: Short Term versus Long Term Rationality

Until you learn to accept it, it is painful for many fundamentally driven investors to accept trends that are short-term rational, but long-term irrational. (And, much as it hurts my fingers to type this, technicians don’t have that problem… they have other problems though.) 😉

Tonight’s topic is private equity. There has been a cascade of bits and bytes splattered across the web on this topic, so I thought I would try to give a well-rounded picture, together with my views on the topic. Let’s start with the bull case:

Who better to start with than my colleague Jim Cramer? Two articles:

  1. Fear Not the Private Equity ‘Bubble’, and
  2. Five Reasons Private-Equity Deals Keep Going.

Let’s take the latter article. What were his five reasons?

Funny; it [DM: the private equity wave] will end. But not before many things happen, including these five:

  1. Interest rates on the long end going to at least 6%-7%. At that point, I believe it will get too risky.
  2. The equity market being closed to the IPOs of the companies that need to be flipped. It’s wide open right now.
  3. Not one, not two, but maybe three or four, or even five deals going bust. Can’t we wait for even one to go belly-up before we get too nervous?
  4. Valuations ramping up more. With the S&P 500 selling for about 17.5 times next year’s earnings, there is plenty of room to keep buying.
  5. Private equity funds running out of money. Very unlikely.

He has made the case exceptionally well as to why Private Equity should continue to be a factor in the market in the short-to-intermediate run. Here are two other pieces that make a similar case, which can be summarized like this: if there is a positive spread between the forecast earnings yield of a company, and the interest rate at which we can finance the purchase of the company, then it is rational to take the company private.
It’s at times like this that my inner actuary comes out and says, “Hey, what about a provision for adverse deviation?” That is, how much can go wrong, and still make this deal work? My inner financial analyst asks a slightly different question, “Will you need additional financing later, even if it is selling off the company? What if financing or selling is not available on today’s advantageous terms?”

The private equity folks will say that the high debt levels force success; there is no room for error, so we will work like crazy to make it work. As for financing, there are always windows of opportunity within a reasonable time span. There is no reason to worry.

Now not all deals work out, despite the best efforts of the new private owners. Most are marginal with a few celebrated home runs. During mania times, buyers definitely overpay. As an example, you can see how badly Daimler Benz did in its purchase of Chrysler. Will Cerberus do as well? I am not as bullish as the BW article, but it is clear the Cerberus does not have as much at risk as Daimler. Where I differ is that it will be harder to shed liabilities and reduce costs than the article implies.

At present there aren’t a lot of hot problems in private equity deals. There are financing difficulties, like KKR finding it hard to get additional private equity investors. Institutional investors like to be diversified, which always makes it tough for the biggest players in any asset class to get financing. Aside from that, the risks from doing deals are in the future.

At present, there is a lot of cash to finance private equity for both debt and equity commitments. Today it is rare to find assets that cannot be refinanced. There are more vultures than carrion. There have also been many articles pointing out that amid the flood of financing, the leverage has been going up, and the interest coverage down.

These are not the problems of today, so bulls ignore it and bears get frustrated. These will be problems, just not yet. What if real interest rise? Well, that will affect the ability to re-IPO the company, but it won’t absolutely stop a deal today. What if interest rates rise simply due a bond bear market, whether due to inflation, or global competition for capital? That will affect new deals, making it harder for them to get done, and sale multiples will fall on companies that the private equity folks try to sell.

Perhaps the effects are reversed here. Maybe private equity troubles will be a harbinger of the next junk bond bear market. Could be; after all, one weakness of being private is that tapping the public equity markets is not an easy option, much as that can be valuable when times are about to get tight.

Here’s my verdict. In the short run, almost anything can work. When debts go bad, it typically occurs because the company chokes on paying the interest, not the principal. Private companies that can pay the interest will likely survive to make some money for their private equity sponsors. But many will over-borrow, and in a recession, or in an industry or company downturn, will find that they no longer have enough cash to make the interest payments, and possess limited options for refinancing. Multiple defaults will happen then; think 2009, give or take a year.

But maybe it takes until 2012. If so, perhaps this letter from the future will seem prescient in hindsight. Private equity is not a bubble today; history may judge it to be a mania. To my readers I say be careful, and stick with higher quality bonds and stocks.