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December 8, 2008

Private Equity: Up, Up and Away

Job losses in the United States are the early cough of the venerable cold Canada will catch soon enough.  Unemployment statistics out of the U.S. released last weak showed jobs are being shed across the whole economy and at a faster rate than expected.  Big, infectious coughs, blowing up over the Adirondacks and into our backdoor. 

Though many fund managers will tell you that they have barrels of "dry powder" stowed away in their coffers (aka, cash ready to invest), the reality is that the powder is being preserved for a much larger offensive likely to begin during the typical (military) campaigning season, beginning in the Spring.  In the same breathe, they will explain that the deal flow they are seeing right now is actually greater than it was a year ago, but the caveat is that the quality of the deals are not as good.  

There are a few reasons for the increased deal flow.  Private equity's growth in the new millennium, largely due to increased private savings of a wealthy middle class, began to pique the interest of newsmen and women the world over, but it's popularity struck most significantly in 2007 with the advent of the blockbuster deals.  Beginning in the summer of 2007, just after the green movement fell out of vogue and before the sub-prime crisis began spilling ink, private equity was all the rage in newspapers across the continent and in Europe. Blockbuster deals like the buyouts of BCE, TXU Energy, and Chrysler splashed across the front pages of newspapers across the globe; the private lives of fund managers were being written about, from their their cop orate jets flying all across the world, to lobster dinners on Fifth Avenue.

So with lower quality deals blowing in the door, fund managers have grown more discriminating in regard to what they would deploy their 'dry powder' into.  This is leading to a great many "orphaned deals" disseminating throughout the market.  Generally speaking, the public market is trading shares at half their value from a year ago and a fund manager won't invest into a private company at a greater price than he can invest in a comparable public company, which means that the value of private companies are being depressed at this time as well.  At first light of market stabilization, the dry powder will begin to be deployed at an incredible rate, as funds compete to snatch up companies still trading at relatively low multiples, getting more equity for their investment dollar.    

Though the Canadian economy will inevitably be pulled along with the current global problems, look for activity in the private equity market to signal a recovery.  Fund managers are intelligent and have the flexibility to creatively carve out the returns they crave, but they are not superheroes, and will wait until the volatility gives some indication of subsiding.
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