Meteoric Rise of Private Equity and Hedge Funds
September 6, 2007
In his May 10, 2007 Address to Shareholders, Paul Desmarais Jr. CEO of the Power Corporation of Canada compared and contrasted his corporation with private equity and hedge funds.
In recent years private equity funds have grown at a phenomenal pace. Collectively they have brought about the privatization of public companies worldwide worth $900 billion! In 2006 alone, the 10 largest private equity funds raised $120 billion in new money destined for privatizations. At first an American phenomenon, private equity funds spread to Canada, the U.K., continental Europe and even Japan. Today in the U.K., 19% of private sector employees, or 3.3 million people, work for businesses owned by private equity firms. In Germany the number is 800,000.
In their early years, private equity funds often brought an added value and better governance to the companies they privatized by replacing ineffective and complacent boards of directors. While they were then generally met by fiercely resistant business managers opposed to privatization, nowadays their job is made easier by the growing number of public company executives who, frustrated by the tedious, distracting and costly compliance to modern-day governance rules and regulations, are more receptive to the idea of private equity funds taking them private. And, let’s not forget that, in today’s world, managers are more mobile and can gravitate to the numerous opportunities offered by private equity funds, where they can receive considerable compensation over a relatively short period of time, while being sheltered from public scrutiny and sensational headlines.
Meanwhile hedge funds, which by nature have a shorter time horizon, now number 9,000 and manage in excess of $1 trillion (that’s right, one thousand billions!). In 2006 alone, $126 billion of new money flowed into U.S. hedge funds. Their presence in the financial markets is substantial: for example, they account for between 30% and 50% of transactions on the New York and London stock exchanges! These funds are lightly regulated private investment pools which initially attracted endowment funds and wealthy individuals, but which today also have pension funds and insurance companies as investors.
While many hedge funds are devoted to generating short-term returns by leveraging financial instruments, I would like to focus on those funds which take positions in widely held public companies and become “activist shareholders” with the view of pressuring those companies into actions which, in turn, will quickly result in added value for shareholders, including themselves. Once they become shareholders, they will often align with other institutional investors who are shareholders of the company, and promote whatever initiatives could quickly generate added value: sale or spinoff s of divisions, cash dividends or repurchase of shares, and cuts in operating costs, are a few examples of what can be on their agenda, in addition to their ultimate goal of an outright sale of the company, which would fetch a premium for control (Desmarais 2007a:3.)
In the same month in an article published in the Canadian Council of Chief Executives journal National and Global Perspectives Desmarais warned of the structural impact on the industrialized world caused by the meteoric rise of private equity and hedge funds in the financial markets.
Is it not ironic that the principal investors in private equity and hedge funds – large institutional investors – are happy to put massive amounts of money in the hands of people who do not register with any securities commission, or have few, if any, governance regulations to adhere to and report on? (Desmarais 2007:16).
In the same edition both Gordon Nixon and Dominic D’Alessandro echoed their concerns.
In 2006, more than 100 of Canada’s public companies were acquired by foreign interests. The list includes some of the oldest and most well-established companies across a broad spectrum of industries – everything from hotels to retailing, to metals and mining [. . .] My concern stems from the fact that the world is awash with capital and that the consolidation trend in many industries will inevitably continue. We are a small country with a relatively small population. Canadian companies typically are not of a size to be global players. All too often, decisions affecting the future of important firms and the communities that they sustain are made solely with a view to the short-term financial consequences. I find it particularly bothersome that so many of our natural resource companies – which I would argue represent unique and irreplaceable assets – are now owned elsewhere (D’Alessandro 2007).
Over the past year, 116 Canadian public companies were acquired by foreign interests, more than any other major country including much bigger economies such as the United States, the United Kingdom, France and all the Nordic countries combined. We have not only seen the disappearance of major Canadian household names, but the loss of Canadian presence in industries where we have long had traditional strengths (Nixon 2007:5).
In May and June, 2007 the 150 C-Suite executives from the top 1000 corporations interviewed by the Gandalf Group were generally optimistic about the Canadian economy (Gandalf Group 2007:4). Some expressed concerns about the increasing levels of foreign ownership in key sectors and about private equity firms hollowing out corporate Canada. 23% have concerns that private equity firms engage in too much short-term thinking (Gandalf Group 2007:32). Most executives now favour restrictions in strategic industries.
The strongest areas of consensus about the negative impacts of private equity relate to keeping the company Canadian owned and about the debt burden of the company. A substantial percentage of executives believe that private equity also has a negative impact on the economic contribution the company will make to Canada and to the community it operates in, on the labour relations of the company and on the governance of the company (Gandalf Group 2007:28).
2006. “Canadian Executives Indicate Human Resources and Rising Canadian Dollar are the Major Business Challenges.” CTV. June 12, 2006.
2007. “C-Suite Survey.” Globe and Mail, Report on Business. 18 June 2007: B5.
D’Alessandro, Dominic. 2007. “How Can We Conserve Canadian Ownership?” National and Global Perspectives . May 3, 2007. p. 23.
Desmarais, Paul Jr. 2007. “Private equity, public interest.” National and Global Perspectives . May 10, 2007. p. 16.
Desmarais, Paul Jr. 2007a. “Chairman’s Address to Shareholders.” Power Corporation of Canada. May 10, 2007.
Nixon, Gordon M. 2007. “As the world changes, Canada must adapt.” National and Global Perspectives . March 2, 2007.
Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “Meteoric Rise of Private Equity and Hedge Funds.” >> speechless. September 2007.
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