institutions reacting to poor hedge fund/private equity returns

A couple of days ago, the Dealbook section of the New York Times reported on a recent meeting of the Institutional Investors Roundtable in western Canada.

The purpose of the organization, founded in 2011, is to help large government-linked investment bodies, like sovereign wealth funds and managers of government employee pension plans, cooperate to solve common problems.

According to the NYT, the agenda of the latest meeting was hedge fund and private equity investments.  Although the proceedings are secret, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what went on.

The institutions’ dilemma:  on the one hand, they want and need the diversification and the high-return investment opportunities that hedge funds and private equity promise.   On the other, despite their colorful brochures and persuasive presentations, many hedge fund/private equity ventures produce pretty awful returns.

There are two main reasons for this:

–some hedge fund/private equity operators are brilliant marketers and well-connected politically, but that’s it.  They’re not great investors.  It doesn’t help matters that academic research shows a significant number of them bend the truth in stating their qualifications, track records, assets under management…

–the hedge fund/private equity fees are so high that there’s little extra return left over for the institutions who supply the investment capital.

The IIR solution?

It’s to try to develop hedge fund/private equity projects among the members themselves, thereby cutting out the fees charged by third parties.  One institution cited in the NYT article says doing so adds 5 percentage points to the annual returns it received from such projects.  On a world where bonds yield next to nothing and where stocks may produce 6%-8% annual returns, a 5 percentage point pickup is enormous.

This movement is in its infancy.  Not every institution will be able to participate, either because of political pressure at home or lack of even minimal expertise.  But even that may change in time.

The most important thing to notice, I think, is the evolution away from traditional Wall Street practices that make the financiers–and no one else–rich.  I think that sovereign wealth funds, bot from China and the Middle East, will take leading roles in this development.

Blackberry (BBRY)’s search for strategic alternatives

a 6-K

Yesterday BBRY filed a 6-K (it’s a foreign–i.e., Canadian–company, hence it’s a 6-K, not an 8-K) with the SEC, which consists of the press release it issued at the same time.

In it, BBRY (BB for you Toronto Stock Exchange fans) says it’s setting up a committee to explore strategic alternatives, which the firm defines as “possible joint ventures, strategic partnerships or alliances, a sale of the Company or other possible transactions,”

BBRY also says the board member, Prem Watsa, CEO of BBRY’s largest shareholder, investment firm Fairfax Financial, has resigned from the board citing “potential conflicts” that may arise as the committee does its work.

What’s going on?

It seems to me that BBRY effectively hung a “For Sale” sign around its neck in March 2012–and has had no takers.  So the announcement appears to mean–and is being widely taken on Wall Street as meaning–that BBRY is getting ready to go private.  Mr. Watsa’s resignation from the board suggests his firm will want to be part of the private ownership group.

Why go private?  

Why can’t BBRY do what’s necessary while retaining its listing?  It’s all about financing.

1,  For one thing, it’s better to have no price than a low price.

BBRY may need radical surgery to survive.  Contrary to the picture presented in finance textbooks, Wall Streeters aren’t steely eyed rational thinkers.  The sight of blood and body parts on the operating table makes them woozy.  During restructuring, the stock price might decline–sharply, very sharply.  Professional short-sellers, whose job is to kick a fellow while he’s down, would certainly help push the price down.

The low price–let’s say $1 a share vs. about $11 now–has several bad consequences.

–It scares the wits out of potential sources of finance, either the junk bond market or commercial banks, who would take the same factual situation much more calmly if there were no plunging price chart.  This effectively cuts off liquidity, just as the firm needs it the most.

–The price could get low enough that the stock is delisted, another unnecessary black eye.

–Worst of all for shareholders, a stock that’s unattractive to acquirers at $11 may become irresistible at $2.  Shareholders might jump all over a takeover bid at $4–in effect “stealing” the patient right out of the recovery room.

2.  Look at DELL.  Silver Lake has lots of experience in turning around tech companies.  Its price?  …ownership of the company, i.e., the lion’s share of the profits from doing so.  That’s just the way it is.

3.  One of the ugly secrets of private equity is this:  sometimes, when the private equity owners sense the ship is sinking despite their best efforts, they make a large junk bond offering and pay out some or all of the proceeds as a dividend to themselves.  Their risk is lessened by the return of capital; that of the offering company is increased.  This maneuver would be impossible to accomplish with a publicly listed company.

4.  Yes, going private frees management from SEC-mandated financial disclosure and from the need to do extensive investor/press relations.  But I think this is a minor benefit in comparison with either #1, #2 or #3.








is the income tax preference for private equity justified? …I don’t think so

simplified preliminaries

Private equity investors raise money from institutional investors.  Those funds become the equity portion of highly debt-leveraged capital cocktails used to purchase underperforming companies.  Once in control of a target company, private equity typically tries to streamline operations.  It cuts overhead (including marketing and R&D) and staff, with the intention of selling the made-over and hopefully more profitable project firm, as a whole or in pieces, within five-seven years. 

Private equity is paid in two ways:  through recurring management fees for its projects, and through a share of the profits when the project company is sold.  Applied to private equity, carried interest refers to the practice of having the private equity managers’ compensation structured, either mostly or entirely, as equity–ownership interests in projects.  As a result, although the compensation sounds a lot like what hedge funds charge, it is taxed as long-term capital gains rather than ordinary income.   This “tax shelter” feature of private equity was highlighted in last year’s presidential campaign, which showed that Mitt Romney’s paid Federal income tax at about a third of the normal salary rate.

most investment professionals pay normal income tax

Last year, Representative Sander Levin of Michigan introduced a bill to close the tax loophole that private equity uses.  Mr. Levin has been quoted as saying that it isn’t fair for investment professionals to pay taxes at a lower rate than workers in other industries.  I agree.  I should point out, though, that Mr. Levin is wrong about one thing.  The income of the vast majority of investment professionals–private equity being the only notable exception–is already taxed as ordinary income.

is there reason for a tax preference for private equity managers?

Do private equity managers perform an important economic and social function that would not be accomplished if their compensation were taxed at normal rates?

The two potentially positive arguments that I can see are :

1.  that private equity managers are an essential part of the “creative destruction” that continually reinvigorates the US economy.  They take idle capital out of the hands of those who use it badly and put  those corporate assets into the hands of people who can employ it more effectively.  Sounds good.  But I haven’t read a single study of the private equity industry that shows conclusively that private equity makes the companies they acquire very much better.  Yes, barnacles get scraped off the bottoms.  But researchers I’ve read conclude that any supernormal returns generated by private equity projects come from the debt-heavy (read: very risky) financial structure they fashion in their project companies.

2.  that they provide counterbidders to trade buyers ( i.e., industrial companies) who would otherwise capture M&A targets too cheaply.  That’s probably true.  But this doesn’t man any extra social good is created.  This is more an issue of into whose pockets the purchase premium goes–the buyers’ or the sellers’.  Private equity tilts the field toward the sellers–who, by the way, happen to be the guys who have spawned and tolerated the inefficient entity.

lobbying legislators has been the key to preserving carried interest (no surprise here)

Heavy lobbying by the private equity industry, both in the US and in Europe, has protected the carried interest tax avoidance device so far.  Not for long, though, in my opinion.  Mitt Romney, a key figure in private equity a generation ago,  became a public illustration of how private equity mega-millionaires use the carried interest loophole to make their tax bills from Uncle Sam all but disappear.  It didn’t help, either, that Mr. Romney was inarticulate and disorganized during the campaign–and completely blown away organizationally and in the use of technology by Mr. Obama.  And Mr. Romney was supposed to be the cream of the private equity crop.  

private equity zombies–very hard to kill

what they are

The Wall Street Journal has been writing recently about private equity “zombie” funds.  These are funds that whose managers refuse to liquidate and return the proceeds to the original investors, even though the typical 8-10-year fund life has already passed.

A given private equity investment is supposed to last around five years.  That gives the managers time to make operating improvements and locate a buyer to sell the now-polished-up company to.  Add a year or so to that, so the managers to find enough good investments to use all the fund’s capital.  Add another, in case recession makes buyers temporarily wary.  That’s how you get to 8-10 years of life for the total fund.

In theory, private equity managers have no interest in keeping client money.  True, they get a recurring yearly management fee of around 1% of the assets under management (based, incidentally, on their own estimate of asset value–another bone of contention).  But their big payoff comes from their “carried interest,”  the 20% or so of the capital gains generated by each project that clients cede to them.  Private equity managers only collect this when the project is sold and proceeds returned to the clients.

The details, including the “sell by” date, are all spelled out in the private equity contracts.

How, then, can “zombies” arise?

The combination of two circumstances keeps them lurching around:

–failed investments, ones with no capital gains possibility, and

–clauses in the early private equity contracts that gave the managers (unlimited) extra time to find a buyer.  The intention was good–to not force the private equity managers to sell at a bad time.  In most cases, however, there was no other provision giving clients a course of action if they disagreed with the managers’ assessment.

The result is hundreds of failed private equity funds that refuse to liquidate, because managers want to continue collecting an annual fee.  They claim they’re looking for buyers, but…  The WSJ thinks that what we’re seeing now is just the tip of the iceberg.

two lessons

1.  Buy in haste, repent at leisure.  In the early days of any new investment fad, buyers rush headlong to be one of the first owners of the new thing.  They rarely look carefully.  If they are alerted about possible pitfalls, like no recourse if the private equity manager refuses to give back remaining money, they ignore the warnings.

2.  In desperate times, almost no one remains honest.  I’m an optimist.  I have great faith in human nature.  But in “zombie” circumstances, this is always a foolish bet.  At the very least, a professional with an obligation to protect clients’ assets shouldn’t rely on the kindness of strangers.

why not let sleeping dogs lie?

Institutional investors appear to be making a big push now to get their dud private equity investments resolved, even by selling them for half nothing (assuming they can find a buyer at all).


Two reasons:

–for taxable investors, an investment loss has an important tax value.  The present value of the loss deteriorates over time, so the sooner it’s used, the more it’s worth.

–keeping a dud investment on your balance sheet makes you look like an idiot.  Well, when you bought the thing, you were an idiot.  That’s the way it is.

But there’s invariably someone on your board of directors who will ask about it at every meeting.  Prospective clients may even make little gasping sounds if they recognize it on your list of holdings.  The black eye you’ve given yourself will only fully disappear when the investment is sold.  This is especially important if you see more of these coming down the track.


what is a carried interest?

Mitt Romney’s taxes

Mitt Romney’s partial disclosure of his tax situation has reopened debate on the issue of how private equity managers and some hedge funds use carried interest as a device to shelter their earnings from tax.

Since Mr. Romney left the private equity business a decade ago, it seems to me that he isn’t currently using carried interest as a tax shelter.  In all likelihood, it’s some combination of itemized deductions, like charitable contributions or state and local taxes paid, and the favorable treatment of long-term gains on investments that’s producing his low tax rate.  But he was a prominent figure in the private equity community, so the press–and his political opponents–have made the connection anyway.

Powerful lobbying efforts by the private equity industry have defeated repeated attempts to close the tax loophole it uses to lower its executives’ tax burden.

I wrote about this topic in mid-2010.  But I haven’t read anything, wither in the current discussion or in the past, that explains exactly what a carried interest is.  Hence this post.

carried interest

A carried interest is a participation in an investment venture where the holder gets a share of the cash generated by the project (profits or cash flow) without having to contribute anything to the venture’s costs.  The holder of such an interest is “carried” in the sense that the other venture participants pick up the burden of his share of project expenses.

Carried interests aren’t just a private equity phenomenon.  They’re very common in the mining industry, which is where I first encountered them thirty years ago.  But they also occur in lots of other industries, particularly those where highly specialized experience or skills, or possession of crucial physical resources are key to a project’s success.  In the extractive industries, holders of mineral rights may be carried.  The fund raisers or organizers of any sort of projects may be carried, as well.  So, too, famous actors or holders of key intellectual property.

variations on the theme

As with everything in practical economic life, there are myriad variations on this basic idea.  For example,

–a party may not be carried for the entire life of the project, but only up to a certain point–say, when cash flow turns positive.

–the other parties may be entitled to recover the “extra” costs they’ve paid to subsidize the carried interest before the carried interest receives a dime (there are also lots of variations on the cost recovery theme), or

–the carried interest may only be paid if the project exceeds specified return criteria.

In plain-vanilla projects, the carried interest receives a portion of the recurring revenue that the venture generates.  This is ordinary income and taxed as such.  The private equity case is different.

private equity and carried interest

Private equity raises equity money from institutions or wealthy individuals, arranges financing of, say, 3x -5x that amount, and uses the assembled war chest to make acquisitions.  It targets mostly badly run companies.  It spruces them up and resells them a few years later.  There’s no conclusive evidence that this process adds any economic value, although it certainly sets the process of “creative destruction” in motion in the affected company–but that’s another issue.

Private equity companies appear to me to act as a blend of business consultants and managers of a highly concentrated (and extremely highly leveraged) equity portfolio.  What’s really unique about them is their pay structure.

Private equity charges its clients a recurring management fee of, say, 2% of the assets under management plus a large performance bonus if the turnaround projects they select are successful.  This bonus is structured as a carried interest (an equity holding) in each individual project.  Because the projects last several years and result in an equity sale, the bonus payments are capital gains, not ordinary income.  This means the private equity executives’ tax bill is much less than half what it would be if the payments were income.

my thoughts

You’ve got to admit that turning investment management income into capital gains is a clever trick.  Should the loophole be closed?  When I first wrote about this I thought so.  I still do.  But I’d prefer to see more comprehensive tax reform that achieves this result rather than specific legislation that targets the private equity industry.  I also find it somewhat disturbing that private equity political contributions and lobbying allow them to “own” this issue in Congress, despite the fact that private equity’s taxation is clearly different from other investment managers’, from management consultants’ and from corporate executives’ for basically the same activities.