In the UK and the rest of Europe, activity was muted in 2019, which saw PE firms announce deals valued at US$159b, down 12% from 2018. However, with fundraising strong — firms headquartered in the region raised US$162b last year — and Brexit moving toward a final, albeit messy conclusion, dealmakers are likely to see a reappearance of compelling opportunities, particularly in take-private transactions and distressed opportunities. In Asia-Pacific, the ongoing trade dispute between the US and China is disproportionately affecting the China market, a theme that could persist. However, the degree to which activity remains predicated on the domestic growth story means opportunities will continue to remain robust in less export-sensitive industries; consumer spending in China is currently growing at 10% per year, more than double the rate of the US.
Interest in impact to accelerate
The trend toward increased interest in impact-oriented investments is expected to continue. For many years now, PE firms have been identifying, managing and tracking Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) factors across the full life cycle of their investments; now, however, many are moving beyond the “do no harm” mentality of ESG and are actively working toward creating positive social change through their investments. Last year alone, according to the Global Impact Investor Network (GIIN), impact investors put more than US$5b to work in PE investments.
2020 should see even more capital devoted to the space, and more investments in businesses with a high social value-add. Exit activity will remain market dependent. 2019 saw a measure of caution in the IPO space, as investors pushed back on the valuations of many unicorn IPOs. The pipeline remains robust; however, investors will be increasingly focused on fundamentals and the long-term sustainability of business models. Trade sales should remain active, as will exits to other PE funds. Moreover, the rise of the LP secondary market is providing new options for LPs seeking liquidity. Five years ago, this was approximately a US$26b market — now, activity is pushing US$100b.
PE firms prepping for a range of macro scenarios
One significant open item is the overall economic outlook and the way in which that might impact PE activity. The last decade has been one of unprecedented growth for private equity. Since the GFC roughly a decade ago, the size of the industry has more than doubled. However, we now enter a period, where the outlook is more mixed. On one hand, we have a picture of robust, albeit slowing growth. On the other, mounting concerns around the potential for a widespread economic downturn driven by geopolitical instability, pockets of market excess and the overall length of the current economic expansion. Indeed, one of the lessons from the last crisis was that while PE acted quickly to protect its portfolio companies (as evidenced by the relatively few defaults among PE-backed business), it was too conservative in deploying additional capital on new platform investments and add-on transactions. Should the market turn, we expect the industry to view it as a buying opportunity, and to deploy rather aggressively. With more than US$740b in dry powder at its disposal, it is better positioned than ever before to execute on these ambitions.