By Ian Kelly (pictured), Augentius – The heatwave that has gripped much of the Northern hemisphere over the summer months provides a neat metaphor for the current state of the global private equity and real estate industry. Just as Europe and North America have sweltered under record temperatures and aridity, ‘very hot and exceedingly dry’ more or less summarises the state of the alternative investment market.
Despite a slight ebb in Q2 of 2018, firms are raising money at a pace and level not seen since before the financial crash. According to Preqin, 2017 saw a massive 20 per cent increase in funds under management, the highest rate of annual growth ever recorded by the analyst, bringing the industry’s total AUM to over three trillion USD. The average fundraising period has now fallen to 12 months, half of what it was in 2010.
This is all quite understandable considering that the industry has frequently posted double-digit returns in a post-crash era marked by a paucity of yield. However it has led to a situation where the flow of money is fairly one-way. The amount of ‘dry powder’ has increased in lockstep with AUM growth, rising 24 per cent in 2017 to a record level of 1.1 trillion USD – with some estimates putting the figure as high as 1.5 trillion. The trend has become self-perpetuating: fund managers have more and more capital, with less and less attractive options for spending it, which only pushes deal values higher, continuing the cycle.
As such, and despite the overall buoyancy of the sector, firms may be about to enter into a tricky phase which will take skill to navigate. Paper gains are all very well and good, but ultimately don’t mean anything until they convert to actual gains via exits. The risk now is that the fierce competition for investment opportunities will inflate deal valuations to the point of seriously impacting returns. And while this might be a short term phase to allow for market rebalancing, investors who are used to outperformance from the sector – or have recently moved into the sector, drawn by the allure of double digit returns – may find such a dip difficult to stomach.
Good investor relations come easily when the returns are flowing, but should there be a period of tightening, trust and confidence will need to be sourced from elsewhere. Communication will be of critical importance. Constant talk of squeezed returns due to overpricing will make it more crucial than ever that managers are able to clearly, regularly and efficiently provide information on portfolios, explaining the situation and their strategy – ensuring that sentiment is managed and that key relationships don’t become a casualty of the changing environment.
In fact, boom times or not, investors have been agitating for greater transparency into their investments for a number of years. The industry has done some good collaborative work to respond to this. Notably, trade body ILPA’s common reporting template is beginning to catch on (a laudable case of being ahead of the regulator, which is consulting on a mandatory fee template of its own). However there is still a way to go, and while standardisation of this sort will certainly improve things, it doesn’t help provide the granular, customisable information of the sort LPs are increasingly hungry for.
And on a firm-by-firm basis, there is still a long way to go. Despite a recent wave of investment in technology, some parts of the industry remain relatively low-tech relative to their peers in finance, with much of this visible in the area of investor communications. Too many firms still rely on outmoded, simplistic updates delivered via PDF or email.
While this may have sufficed in the less heavily regulated, less formal PE industry of old, in the modern environment it means one of two things: damaging relationships, or creating obscene amounts of unnecessary cost and work in the process of responding to ever-more complex and idiosyncratic investor demands (or worse, both). A recent survey of Augentius’ clients across the globe revealed that only half of managers were providing their investors with enough information on a routine basis, without investors having to make additional requests. Concerningly, one in five investors reporting never receiving the additional information they requested – which hardly inspires confidence. And what’s somewhat damaging to relationships now could be fatal during a period of lower returns and investor anxiety.
The barriers to solving the problem are far more cultural than financial or technical. Well-tested and relatively low-cost platforms exist now that can automate much of the reporting process, allowing for far more in-depth, frequent and granular information to be sent to investors. This can be tailored to exactly what investors want and need – without any corresponding increase in cost and effort for fund managers (indeed there is often a net saving given the efficiency gains).
Nonetheless, the gradual pace of change on this front may not be quick enough. Should the long summer of private equity be able to give way to a storm, the need for gold standard investor relationships will become one of survival rather than advantage. Storms have a way of separating the wheat from the chaff.