Private Equity Going Strong, but Still Wrestles with High Prices, Economic Concerns

This article orginally appeared on Forbes.com.

The characteristics of private equity’s (PE) durable rebound have come into sharper focus in the wake of a strong year in 2014. It is now clear that PE has been riding the waves of a world awash in capital that show no signs of breaking anytime soon. The number and value of buyout exits climbed to an industry record last year. Strong distributions of capital flowed back to limited partners (LPs), helping to make 2014 another solid year for raising new funds as LPs recycled capital into their best-performing asset class.

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Yet, as we explain in Bain & Company’s Global Private Equity Report 2015, while it has been a great time to be a seller in the current cycle, it has been challenging to be a buyer. The combination of a surge in global liquidity and near-zero interest rates has inflated asset valuations, lifting acquisition multiples on PE investment targets. Global buyout investment activity has remained steady since the recovery got under way (see figure).


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As 2015 unfolds, will the PE industry continue to display the resilience that has served it so well in a time characterized by capital superabundance and sluggish global growth? The industry’s near-term prospects will be influenced by whether ongoing structural problems in the eurozone and slowing GDP growth in the Asia-Pacific region outweigh the gathering momentum of North America’s cyclical expansion, tipping the global economy into recession. PE’s potential will also be shaped by whether the actions of central banks—in particular, a long-anticipated interest rate hike by the US Federal Reserve Board—choke off the ready availability of low-cost high-yield debt or curb the animal spirits of the public equity markets.

What will not change in the year ahead, however, are the forces unleashed by superabundant global capital. As we will explain in future installments of this series, asset prices will remain chronically high as dry powder continues to pile up and competition for deals remains feverish—including competition from large pools of “shadow capital” in the hands of big institutional investors and sovereign wealth funds looking to co-invest, or even bypass PE funds entirely. Those factors will turn up the heat on general partners (GPs) to demonstrate new resourcefulness by digging deeper into the pool of companies that could benefit from PE ownership or by discovering untapped opportunities, particularly in the relatively attractive US market. Whether the economic expansion keeps grinding along or ends in a downturn in 2015, PE firms will need to become authors of their own success by grooming their portfolio companies to prosper in any business climate.

Written by Hugh MacArthur, Graham Elton, Bill Halloran and Suvir Varma, leaders of Bain & Company’s Private Equity Group.