Awaiting Return of the Buyout King

Investment banks, suddenly the target of pitchforks rather than perky Ivy Leaguers, are defunct. Hedge funds are all but wiped out—some of the remaining ones still in the game only because they’ve refused to honor redemptions. Surely, then, private-equity, equally buoyed by lackadaisical loans, should be reeling too.

Debt, after all, remains elusive and pricey.

If you inclined to weep for multi-multi-millionaires, major investors in private equity, particularly big pension funds, are starting to trade away their capital commitments for eighty, sixty, even twenty cents on the dollar. C'est tragique! And perhaps worst of all, a large number of PE-backed companies bought in 2006 and 2007 are saddled with debt, much of it piled on cheaply, in Gordon-Gekko-sized portions, during the bull market. These teetering former giants will either gobble up more money from their befuddled buyout overlords or head south so quickly they’ll be written off.

So, yes, the whizzes at Carlyle and KKR, as Michael Wolff gloats in Vanity Fair and Andrew Bary argues in Barron’s, may be in quite a fix, even if they’ve so far seemed to sidestep the financial maw. Then again, although a shakeout (and shakedown) in the industry is probably underway—no bad thing when, over the past few years, only the top quartile of LBO shops has truly generated steep returns—private-equity will not vanish. The flush funds, few though they may be, will make off like bandits acquiring, for a pittance, somewhat blemished but generally well-run firms. Trafficking in distressed paper should also prove lucrative. And there’s always the frontier markets. Masters of the Universe, these days, are scouring Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe – seriously! – for deals. Investors are likely to hope that they stay.

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