Does Size Matter For PE Fund Performance?

Dylan Cox of Pitchbook reports, Size doesn't matter in PE fund performance over the long term:
Despite the dueling claims that smaller PE fund managers lack sophistication or sufficient scale, or that larger fund managers lack the nimbleness, operational focus and expertise necessary to improve portfolio companies, returns across different fund sizes are relatively uniform in the long term. 10-year horizon IRRs for PE funds of any size bucket are all between 10% and 11%.

When comparing returns on a horizon basis, it’s important to remember that the data is indicative of market conditions over time, and not the returns of any one vintage. For example, a lower IRR across the industry between the five- and 10-year horizon is not indicative of a loss of alpha-generating capacity after the five-year mark, but rather a reflection of the stretched hold periods and asset write-offs that plagued many PE portfolios during the recession. Similarly, the three-year horizon IRR is the highest we observe, due to the fact that these investments were made before the recent run-up in valuations and have been subsequently marked as such—even though many of these returns have yet to be fully realized through an exit.

Interestingly, funds with less than $250 million in AUM have underperformed the rest of the asset class on a one- and three-year horizon. This is at least partially due to the aforementioned run-up in valuations which stemmed from cash-heavy corporate balance sheets that went looking for inorganic growth through strategic acquisitions—a strategy that often doesn’t reach the lower middle market (LMM) of PE. Only in the last few months have valuations started to rise in the LMM and below, as PE firms of all stripes increasingly look for value plays through add-ons and smaller portfolio companies.

Note: This column was previously published in The Lead Left.

For more data and analysis into PE fund performance, download our new Benchmarking Report.
Let me first thank Ken Akoundi of Investor DNA for bringing this up to my attention. You can subscribe to Ken's distribution list where he sends a daily email with links to various articles covering industry news here.

As far as this study, I would be careful interpreting aggregate data on PE funds and note that previous studies have shown that there is performance persistence in the private equity industry.

Yesterday I covered why big hedge funds are getting bigger or risk going home. You should read that comment because a lot of what I wrote there is driving the same bifurcation between small and large PE funds in the industry.

Importantly, big institutions looking for scale are not going to waste their time performing due diligence on several small PE funds which may or may not perform better than their larger rivals. They will go to the large brand name private equity funds that everybody knows well because they will be able to invest and co-invest (where they pay no fees) large sums with them.

And just like big hedge funds are dropping their fees, big PE funds are dropping their fees but locking in their investors for a longer period, effectively emulating Warren Buffet's approach. I discussed why they are doing this last year in this comment.

These are treacherous times for private equity and big institutional investors are taking note, demanding a lot more from their PE partners and making sure private equity's diminishing returns and misalignment of interests don't impact their long-term performance.

Still, large PE funds are generating huge returns, embracing the quick flip and reorienting their internal strategies to adapt to a tough environment.

In Canada, there is a big push by pensions to go direct in private equity, foregoing funds altogether. Dasha Afanasieva of Reuters reports, Canada’s OMERS private equity arm makes first European sale:
Ontario’s municipal workers pension fund has sold a majority stake in marine-services company V.Group to buyout firm Advent International in the first sale by the Canadian fund’s private equity arm in Europe.

Pension funds and other institutional investors are a growing force in direct private investment as they seek to bypass investing in traditional buyout funds and boost returns against a backdrop of low global interest rates.

As part of the shift to more direct investment, the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS) set up a private equity team (OPE) and now has about $10-billion invested.

It started a London operation in 2009 and two years later it bought V.Group, which manages more than 1,000 vessels and employs more than 3,000 people, from Exponent Private Equity for an enterprise value of $520-million (U.S.).

Mark Redman, global head of private equity at OMERS Private Markets, said the V.Group sale was its fourth successful exit worldwide this year and vindicated the fund’s strategy. He said no more private equity sales were in the works for now.

“I am delighted that we have demonstrated ultimate proof of concept with this exit and am confident the global team shall continue to generate the long-term, stable returns necessary to meet the OMERS pension promise,” he said.

OMERS, which has about $80-billion (Canadian) of assets under management, still allocates some $2-billion Canadian dollars through private equity funds, but OPE expects this to decline further as it focuses more on direct investments.

OPE declined to disclose how much Advent paid for 51 per cent of V.Group. OPE will remain a minority investor.

OPE targets investments in companies with enterprise values of $200-million to $1.5-billion with a geographical focus is on Canada, the United States and Europe, with a particular emphasis on Britain.

As pension funds increasingly focus on direct private investments, traditional private equity houses are in turn setting up funds which hold onto companies for longer and target potentially lower returns.

Bankers say this broad trend in the private equity industry has led to higher valuations as the fundraising pool has grown bigger than ever.

Advent has a $13-billion (U.S.) fund for equity investments outside Latin America of between $100-million and $1-billion.

The sale announced on Monday followed bolt on acquisitions of Bibby Ship Management and Selandia Ship Management Group by V.Group.

Goldman Sachs acted as financial advisers to the shipping services company; Weil acted as legal counsel and EY as financial diligence advisers.
Now, a couple of comments. While I welcome OPE's success in going direct, OMERS still needs to invest in private equity funds. And some of Canada's largest pensions, like CPPIB, will never go direct in private equity because they don't feel like they can compete with top funds in this space.

[Note: It might help if OPE reports the IRR of their direct operations, net of all expenses relative to the IRR of their fund investments, net of all fees so their stakeholders can understand the pros and cons of going direct in private equity. Here you need to look at a long period.]

There is a lot of misinformation when it comes to Canadian pensions 'going direct' in private equity. Yes, they have a much longer investment horizon than traditional funds which is a competitive advantage, but PE funds are adapting and going longer too and in the end, it will be very hard, if not impossible, for any Canadian pension to compete with top PE funds.

I am not saying there aren't qualified people doing wonderful work investing directly in PE at Canada's large pensions, but the fact is it will be hard for them to match the performance of top PE funds, even after fees and expenses are taken into account.

Who knows, maybe OPE will prove me wrong, but this is a tough environment for private equity and I'm not sure going direct in this asset class is a wise long-term strategy (unlike infrastructure, where most of Canada's large pensions are investing directly).

Hope you enjoyed this comment, please remember to subscribe or donate to this blog via PayPal on the top right-hand side to support my effort in bringing you the every latest insights on pensions and investments [good time to remind all of you this blog takes a lot of work and it requires your ongoing support.]

Below, CNBC's David Faber speaks with Scott Sperling, Thomas H. Lee Partners co-president, at the No Labels conference about how President-elect Donald Trump's policies could affect private equity and jobs.

And back in October, Hamilton Lane Vice-Chairman, Erik Hirsch, talked about the state of the private markets, saying that this market benefits from a “lack of emotion” that public markets are affected by daily. Read my recent comment on institutions piling into illiquid alternatives.