OPINION: Private equity has a poor case to state

It was a misplaced desire to 'get' high-earning but allegedly low tax-paying private equity partners that tempted the Government into its disastrous foray against 'non doms'.

Anthony Hilton
Anthony Hilton

So it is understandable for the trade body for the private equity industry, the British Venture Capital Association (BVCA), to want to highlight the economic benefits its business brings to the UK - if only to redress the balance. 

Understandable but not necessarily wise. The storm that broke around private equity's ears last year has moved on and media and political attention is focused elsewhere. Trying to seize the initiative could be a mistake.

This is because the case being made is not particularly strong. According to a just completed survey the BVCA says that private equity-financed businesses grow significantly faster than their peers among the FT 250 and FTSE 100 companies. Similarly they expand employment faster, invest more and export more aggressively.

The problem is that it self-evidently does not work in every case. Last year a BVCA study that assessed the performance of all private equity funds since 1980 said 25 per cent of funds had lost money and more than half had covered their costs but not delivered any significant capital gain.

That's the trouble with surveys - they depend on who you ask and what you measure. Thus the survey dealing with economic impact is distorted by survivor bias. It can only reflect the performance of companies still in business so those private equity companies that have failed are not in there to depress the figures. But of course they are there dragging down the performance of the investment funds.

This brings us to the icebergs. The credit rating agency Standard & Poors has just reported that about half the European leveraged buyouts of the past few years are performing below expectations. That suggests a coming wave of insolvency and bankruptcy among companies financed by private equity some time in the next 18 months.

Perhaps the PR effort should be directed not at trumpeting success but at creating an understanding of this looming problem and explaining that it is part of the price that has to be paid for others to succeed.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard 

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