We count deals

For GPs, finding the right asset at the right price was the biggest constraint on doing deals in That helps explain why the number of transactions has remained stubbornly flat, bouncing around between 3, and 4, buyouts per year since When asked what most gets in the way of closing more deals, GPs cite the same challenges they have faced for years: high deal multiples, a dearth of attractive targets and stiff competition see Figure 1.

GPs are clearly hungry to do more deals, but when they find attractive assets, they consistently encounter aggressive corporate buyers willing to push up auction prices. These buyers are strategic, meaning they will pay more to advance corporate objectives and capture synergies. Increasingly, they are showing up at all ends of the market as they search for ways to spur new growth through acquisition.

The strong P2P activity in the US pushed the value of these deals globally to its highest level since the previous take-private boom in —07 see Figure 1. Sponsor-to-sponsor deals also provided a rich vein of opportunity in That was especially true in Europe, where deals between PE funds dominated in terms of both value and deal count, as they have since It was the fourth consecutive sponsor-to-sponsor transaction for Azelis, a global distributor of specialty chemicals and food ingredients.

Sponsor-to-sponsor deals get a bad rap because they can be inefficient in terms of repeated transaction fees, and the paths to value creation may be less obvious. Yet PE firms continue to see value in them. Indeed, Apax Partners netted a 3. Working with another firm on the sell side can make deals significantly easier by speeding up both diligence and the transaction process. Previous PE ownership also generates a reliable track record and reassures buyers that any time bombs have likely been found and defused. Research consistently shows that sponsor-to-sponsor deals have performed at least as well as primary buyouts over time, often with less risk.

When deals have gone bust, failure was frequently the result of factors that could affect any business, whether or not it was previously owned by a PE firm. After years of record-level fund-raising, PE funds are awash in capital and face a growing need to put large amounts of money to work.

Based on current deal values, the dry powder held in buyout funds today represents 3. Of course, duration would rise if a recession developed over the next couple of years, but it would take a major downturn to produce a significant spike. Dealmaking would have to drop to the —12 average for a sustained period of time—an unlikely scenario—for duration to push back above the five-year mark.

That means the recent deal cycle is clearing out the older capital and replacing it with new. The debt markets encouraged GPs to keep doing deals through much of Despite the rise in US interest rates, the updraft was slow to be felt in loan pricing. Lenders, meanwhile, were competing aggressively to extend credit on easy terms. So-called covenant-lite loans have become increasingly common in lending markets in the second half of this cycle, and debt multiples have entered territory not seen since the peak of the last cycle.

In the years following the global financial crisis, regulators discouraged multiples of six times earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization EBITDA. LPC , which tracks the syndicated loan market see Figure 1. The true leverage deployed in many deals may also have been understated: As is often the case in times of high risk tolerance, banks have allowed borrowers to calculate multiples based on projected earnings instead of actual results. Such calculations tend to bake in expectations for cost cutting, synergies and revenue increases that may or may not materialize.

As hot as the debt markets were for most of , there were signs near year-end that things were cooling off. Bloomberg said the banks reportedly planned to hold the loan on their books until they could once again try to unload it in January. The heavy competition for assets and the flood of capital—both debt and equity—into the market since has had the inevitable effect of raising asset prices to all-time highs. These dynamics—abundant capital on easy terms, pressure to do deals, rising asset prices and an uncertain economic outlook—raise all the usual end-of-cycle red flags.

The best-positioned firms are adjusting their approach in several ways, both to win more auctions without overpaying and to hedge against the risk of a downturn. They are also underwriting new and different kinds of risk than in the past. Firms continue to put money to work, but they are working harder to get it done. Although exit activity in came in a smidgen lower than the previous year, it was still a strong contributor to a historic five-year stretch that has produced unprecedented distributions for investors.

Activity over that period has bounced around somewhat, but the overall trend in exits has been strong and steady, generating an equally steady flow of capital back to LPs. Investors were cash flow positive for the eighth year running, meaning distributions have outstripped contributions each year—a virtuous cycle that has encouraged LPs to continue pumping capital back into the industry see Figure 1. Exit value has been steady across regions, with the Asia-Pacific market producing the only real spike in Asia-Pacific exit count actually dropped during the year, but the average transaction size more than doubled due to a number of large exits in China and India.

The US and Europe also benefited from a stream of big deals. With some exceptions, such as partial exits, GPs are clearly in no mood to hang onto assets any longer than they have to. Changes in the US tax treatment of carried interest were expected to discourage quick flips, but they ticked up last year anyway. The urgency to sell reflects a number of factors. First, demand for assets among both corporate and PE buyers is ravenous.

The same rise in competition and deal multiples that frustrates GPs on the buy side provides a rich opportunity to sell assets for premium prices. Many are willing to trade a little bit of IRR on current exits so they can turn to raising a new and hopefully bigger fund, which can provide fee income and fresh capital to invest for the next five-plus years. Decisions like those are made easier by the proliferation of exit committees charged with moving assets out of the portfolio most opportunistically.

Strategic deals. Cash-rich corporate buyers looking to build scale and scope through acquisition continue to pace the market. The fact that Your Phone Companion is at the top proves that the strategy works.

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