Morgan Stanley
  • Investment Management
  • Aug 13, 2020

The Case for Private Equity Investing Amid the Crisis

Do record levels of cash and a long-term investment horizon make private equity a good candidate for assisting an economic recovery?

As companies around the world reel from the unprecedented disruption of the coronavirus pandemic, private equity may emerge as a source of capital uniquely suited to help businesses weather the storm, while, in turn, putting money to work in transactions at favorable valuations.

Given their long-term investment horizon, private equity firms may be well-positioned to help businesses seeking a path to economic recovery, making opportunities to invest in the asset class more attractive than they’ve been in years, according to Neha Champaneria Markle, Managing Director at Morgan Stanley Investment Management’s AIP Private Markets, which invests in private equity funds, co-investments and secondaries, and manages $12 billion in assets.1

Private equity firms typically invest in companies by either acquiring or providing financing to them, with an aim of driving financial return on invested capital during a period of several years. Investor interest in these firms has steadily grown since the global financial crisis in 2008, as allocators have sought differentiated sources of return, compared with public equities or low-yielding debt.

During the past 20 years, through December 2019, private equity funds returned 11% on an annualized basis, compared with 6% for the S&P 500 Index.2 While commitments to private equity reached record levels in 2019,3 the number of private companies, which is the opportunity set for private equity firms, is greater than ever before in the United States.4 In contrast, the number of U.S. publicly listed companies fell by 37% from 2000 to 2017, amid increased regulation and consolidation and the emergence of private equity capital as an alternative to public markets.5

In the past two decades, funds that started deploying cash following a crisis performed 68% higher than funds whose vintage years fell during late-cycle peak economic growth.

As private and public companies alike face coronavirus disruptions to their workforces, supply chains, and revenue streams, demand for the flexible, patient capital offered by many private equity firms may outstrip supply, Markle says. A similar dynamic characterized prior cycles, which show returns for private equity commitments made following global crises outpacing those made during other periods. Private equity returns are measured based on vintage year, often defined as the year in which a fund begins making investments in underlying companies.

In the past two decades, funds that started deploying cash following a crisis (such as 2001 to 2004, after the dot-com bubble burst, or 2009 to 2012, after the global financial crisis) performed 68% higher than funds whose vintage years fell during late-cycle peak economic growth (such as 1998 to 2000 or 2005 to 2007).6 This may be due, in part, to private equity funds getting more favorable deal pricing during market downturns.

Private Equity Returns by Vintage Year

Source: Preqin; data as of May 2020 for December 31, 2019 values. Past performance is not indicative of future results.

Private Equity Investment Opportunities

Market dislocations caused by the current global health crisis are likely to create a new set of private equity opportunities, Markle says, especially for investors such as AIP Private Markets that has deep experience investing in, and alongside, private equity managers that focus on small- and middle-market companies. Since its inception in 2000, the team at AIP Private Markets has committed nearly $20 billion to more than 900 private equity transactions.7

As COVID-19 roils some industries and regions more than others, individual fund returns in private equity may show greater dispersion than prior to the pandemic, potentially enabling investors to identify managers that pursue more recession-resilient investment approaches, Markle says.

As an example, data suggest that single-sector private equity funds were over three times more likely to perform in the top quartile than generalist managers following the global financial crisis,8 and since then, the number of funds that specialize by industry has increased, offering more options for targeted investing, according to Markle. “Now, you have a deep market for single-sector specialists,” she says. “We look at these funds for the potential to get diversified long-term returns based on a specific theme.”

The pandemic has also pushed investors in private equity funds to be more discerning overall. That means differentiating between fund managers who aim to create value for businesses by supporting profitable growth, either organically or through acquisition, professionalizing processes and systems and enhancing management teams, versus funds that rely more on leverage, or borrowing money, to boost returns. While using debt can amplify performance for a private equity firm and its limited partners in the short term, critics say that aggressive use can increase risk particularly in times of stress, ultimately depressing long-term performance.

“We look at leverage multiples and have the ability to distinguish which managers emphasize operational value creation over financial engineering,” Markle says. “There are many managers in the industry that are committed to generating outperformance for investors by identifying and enhancing growth.”