Wednesday, February 27, 2008

PE prognosis

Many private equity players are (quite rightly) criticised for doing all they can to avoid publicity. That's not a complaint you could make about Alchemy Partners' John Moulton - I fondly remember his Ali G impersonation, back in the Venturedome days ('Ali G' was a popular TV comedy character of the time), while interviewing himself about his much-reviled bid for MG Rover.

Anyway, he's back in the news, raising hackles with a gloomy speech at the more usually bullish 'Super Return' conference in Munich. As the FT reports:
"The industry needs to prepare for bad news," warned John Moulton, founder of Alchemy Partners, in his opening address as a handful of trade unionists waved "locust" placards and distributed anti-buy-out leaflets outside Munich's MOC centre.
"Parts of our industry were behaving just like the US subprime mortgage lenders," said Mr Moulton, a renowned industry doomsday forecaster.
"The quality of what we were doing went down, there was no checking and we used false numbers," he said [...]
"We really ought to expect returns of the industry to tumble," said Mr Moulton.

Gloomy, but hardly unrealistic. It'd be hard to argue that the top end of the private equity market hasn't been building itself a bubble in recent years, fuelled by cheap debt and the weight of new money pouring into the class. The cheap debt's gone now, slamming the brakes on new deals and leaving many over-leveraged existing investments in deep lumber.

The weight of money coming in is still there, though, and it's still looking for a home. I've recently been writing a couple of articles on the European mid-market for Private Equity International, and the folk in that market are a lot more optimistic. There's some problems from the credit crunch, but not nearly as bad as at the big LBO end. And everyone's claiming they were aware of the risks of the recent debt bubble, of course - the head of buyouts at 3i described the generous conditions as "beyond the levels of common sense... a dangerous place for a banking market to be". Many partners are seeing potentially rich pickings in the more troubled economic times ahead, and those out raising new funds over the crunch period say there was no loss of appetite from their own investors.

At the venture end, things are looking shakier. 3i's announcement that it's pulling out of earlyish deals (reported here at Real Business) is hardly unexpected, but might be symptomatic of a wider shift. The rate of new deals in the very-recently-hot areas of clean technology, which I've been tracking over on my Clean Ventures blog, certainly seem to be slowing.

Interesting times ahead...

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