3 minute read 15 Feb 2019
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How high levels of dry powder are driving private equity competition

By

Andres Saenz

EY Global Private Equity Leader

Trusted advisor to leading private equity professionals and their portfolio companies. Ardent student of consumer behavior. Marathoner. Family man.

3 minute read 15 Feb 2019

Private equity markets saw significant activity in 2018, helped by record levels of dry powder driving up asset prices.

While global markets responded to hostile trade rhetoric and geopolitical uncertainty with varying degrees of volatility last year, private equity (PE) continued to boom. Indeed, industry-watchers tend to sum up 2018’s PE market as “many players chasing too few deals.”

This strong PE deal activity was driven primarily by a robust investment environment in the Americas, with the region representing 48% and 50% of global deal value and volume respectively. Overall, PE firms in the region announced acquisitions worth US$229.5b during 2018, up 26% from 2017. In the largest deal of the year, a Blackstone-led consortium acquired a 55% stake in Thomson’s Financial and Risk business for US$17b.

Higher and higher?

This surge in deal activity reflects the need for sponsors to deploy some of the US$695b in capital, or dry powder, they have under management, the majority of which is concentrated in the US.

Such record levels of dry powder were a driving factor behind the stiff competition between PE firms circling the M&A market, keeping valuations elevated, with EV/EBITDA multiples finishing the year as high as 10.6 times.

Another strong year

US$3.8t

worth of global M&A activity in 2018.

This contrasts markedly to public stock market valuations, which depreciated sharply during the year owing to forecasts of slowing economic growth, trade tension between the US and China, and tighter monetary policy.

Nonetheless, PE firms may have to bake negative market sentiment into their strategies if the turbulence of 2018 becomes a characteristic of market activity in 2019.

Tech still top

Tech attraction

74%

rise in deal value in software and technology acquisitions in 2018.

Despite some high-profile falls in tech stock valuations, tech remained a top target for PE firms in 2018. There was a rise of 74% in deal value in software and technology acquisitions, compared to 2017. Indeed, over the past 12 months, 75% of the most active buyers of tech companies worth US$100m or more have been PE firms.

Technology companies continue to be favored by sponsors due to their fast growth rates and the fact that, across all industries, companies must improve their technological capabilities to retain a competitive advantage – meaning the right tech investments today could pay out in the future.

The fintech, health-tech and e-commerce sectors in particular have been attracting significant PE interest in recent years.

Private credit’s rise

Over the past couple of years, PE firms’ fundraising focus has not just been concentrated on buyouts; credit has become an increasingly important vehicle. In an era when stringent capital requirements have curtailed bank lending, private credit funds have increasingly stepped in to provide loans.

Fundraising for private credit vehicles has climbed, with private debt funds raising US$110.2b across 157 separate vehicles in 2018 alone.

Although this is down 12% from 2017, the appetite for fundraising remains strong, with almost 400 private credit vehicles currently seeking more than US$168b in aggregate. In particular, we see investors positioning for late cycle opportunities in the distressed and mezzanine space, which more than doubled its intake of commitments last year.

Looking to the future

In a highly valued, competitive market, PE firms are keenly aware of the need to examine which strategy can best deliver strong returns. As fewer but larger funds dominate the market ever more, firms across the board are looking at different ways to compete.

One trend we expect to see is sponsors leaning towards long-hold funds – longer-term investment vehicles of up to 15 years. This enables PE funds to hold onto profitable companies for longer, giving LPs the ability to deploy large amounts of capital into attractive investments for long periods of time, and for many, to reduce reinvestment risk and better match their assets with their liabilities.

As the sector continues to think about how it should evolve, the shift towards this longer-term buy-and-build strategy versus a short-turnaround acquisition strategy is being seen by PE firms as a good approach to generate superior cash-on-cash returns.

No matter the approach taken, current trends suggest private equity firms will continue to dominate the deal market – and so continue to change both the way companies position themselves and, ultimately, how assets are valued. 

Summary

Stiff competition between private equity buyers and elevated levels of dry powder created a crowded market for private equity investors circling the deal market in 2018. Both factors had a direct impact on asset class valuations, creating a particularly expensive market, especially in the US, which dominated global PE deal activity. 

About this article

By

Andres Saenz

EY Global Private Equity Leader

Trusted advisor to leading private equity professionals and their portfolio companies. Ardent student of consumer behavior. Marathoner. Family man.