April 12, 2017- Global markets experienced a roller-coaster 2016 as the outcomes of the U.K.’s Brexit referendum and the U.S. presidential election rocked investors. Yet, the global private equity (PE) industry proved its resilience, turning in healthy results for the year. Exit activity was strong, but overall totals for 2016 declined as deals that had been on hold during the global financial crisis were finally digested. With investors on the hunt for yield, PE remains a favored asset for institutional investors. Fundraising surged as limited partners (LPs) continued to recycle distributions into new capital commitments. Returns also had another strong showing, continuing to outperform public markets by a sizable gap over both short-term and long-term time horizons. Global buyout activity, on the other hand, declined amid a challenging deal-making environment.
These are the key findings from Bain & Company, the world’s leading advisor to PE investors, in its eighth annual Global Private Equity report.
In 2016, buyout-backed exits around the world dropped 23 percent in value and 19 percent in count from 2015 and fell even further from the record levels of 2014. But, asset sales of $328 billion in disclosed value from 984 deals actually constitutes an extremely strong run, helping the industry deliver its fourth-best year ever by value. This decline was not reflective of a worsening exit environment, but was driven mainly by a leaner pipeline of deals ready for exit as the industry has largely worked through the backlog of assets invested prior to the global financial crisis.
“Given that exits flow from the deals done in previous years, the decline in exit value and count in 2016 wasn’t much of a surprise,” said Hugh MacArthur, who leads Bain’s Global Private Equity Practice. “After several years, the industry has finally normalized through the exits of the massive deals done in 2006 and 2007, like a snake digesting an elephant-sized meal. So, while not quite the blowout of 2014 and 2015, last year still delivered an impressive showing overall for liquidity.”
With nearly all of the pre-crisis deals exited, buyout firms are adjusting to a new normal with longer holding periods of about 5 years – up from the historical average of about 3.5-4 years. Bain expects this trend to continue in the medium term, as a result of high purchase prices and limited sources of market beta, requiring general partners (GPs) to roll up their sleeves and do the time-consuming work of creating value with their assets.
Buyout investment activity decreased in 2016: deal count declined 18 percent and value dropped by 14 percent from 2015 levels. Record-high asset valuations combined with stiff competition – particularly from corporate buyers – made it tougher for PE firms to do deals and achieve target returns. Purchase price multiples for buyouts rose to an average of 10.9x EBITDA for U.S. deals in the third quarter of 2016. The difficulty of putting capital to work, combined with ongoing investor enthusiasm for the private equity asset class has led to a new record amount of dry powder, now totalling $1.5 trillion across all PE fund types globally – $534 billion of that targeted buyouts.
In the MENA region, last year was a transition year for private equity with continuous deal flow in several key sectors.
“In the retail and consumer goods sectors, valuations reflected the new normal of economic growth though some niche sectors still benefitted from double digit growth outlook,” said Gregory Garnier, Bain partner in the Middle East. “Meanwhile, in the healthcare sectors, ongoing privatization efforts opened many investment opportunities. In this new context, investors need to sharpen their pencil on deal sourcing, apply tighter due diligence approaches and manage portfolio companies with stringent value creation approaches. They can no longer wait for an offering to arrive on their doorstep and then react at the same time as the rest of the crowd.”
According to MacArthur, when deals do materialize, they command high prices. And with an expected hold time of about 5 years, the margin of error for generating alpha and delivering acceptable returns to LPs has greatly narrowed. In response, GPs are codifying their battle-tested approaches – what they are good at, what has and has not created value, and where and how their funds have made money for investors – to build playbooks that consist of detailed, sequenced actions taken over time to maximize value from each investment.
In 2016, capital continued to pour into the PE industry, making it the fourth year in a row for solid fund-raising. In line with demand over the past several years, PE firms globally raised $589 billion in capital, just 2 percent less than in 2015, aided by a surge of 11 mega-buyout funds—those raising more than $5 billion— that closed to raise $90 billion.
But could this be as good as it gets? Many GPs are apprehensive that the industry cannot sustain the torrid pace of fund-raising for much longer. Bain expects that distributions will continue to outpace contributions and LP commitment to the PE asset class will stay strong. However, the fund-raising environment may not be as favourable in coming years, making it important for GPs to focus on what makes them stand out from the pack.