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Private markets are not a crisis risk

Good morning. The US stock market opened 2023 with a “meh” as the leadership race in the House of Representatives got ugly (one Twitter wag misquoted Yoda artfully: “Begun, the clown wars have.”) Tesla shares took a beating; I’ll probably write about that later this week. Send your thoughts: 

A private markets financial crisis? Probably not

Regular readers will remember this chart, which we published in a letter late last year:

Line chart of Breit Class I asset value per share, and share prices of selected peers showing One of these things is not marked to market

The chart shows the performance of six more-or-less similar real estate investment trusts. The five whose returns are bunched together are priced by the market; the outlier (Blackstone’s Breit) is private, and priced by accountants in the employ of the trust. I leave it to readers to assess, in their own word or words, the accuracy of Blackstone’s paid-for marks. Breit investors have reached their own conclusions. Many of them looked at the fund’s valuation and asked for their money. Some of those were told they could not have it.

Dan Rasmussen of Verdad Capital, who has been quoted in this space several times, points out in the FT today that this phenomenon is not restricted to Reits. It’s a private markets issue. He uses the example of venture capital:

Technology investors faced a sharp reversal this year. By the end of June, Nasdaq was down 29.5 per cent and the Goldman Sachs Unprofitable Tech index was down 52 per cent.

Yet one corner of the tech market was strangely unaffected. The US Venture Capital index compiled by Cambridge Associates was down only 12.5 per cent through the end of June (the last available data).

It’s the same unsurprising story again. When asset managers get to price their own assets, they go mighty easy. This distorts the market in unfortunate ways (as Unhedged has pointed out several times). We might sum up the issues as follows:

  • Institutional investors like private capital because soft marks give the (mostly spurious) appearance of low volatility, which leads to better risk-adjusted reported returns 

  • Institutional investors also like private capital because the fund managers can use loads of leverage to improve their results, which the institutional investors cannot do directly, because that would look too risky

  • As a result, mountains of capital have flooded into private capital, diminishing returns. The private equity industry, for example, has not beaten the S&P 500 over the past decade (see here), despite using mountains of leverage. Big fees eat up the extra returns provided by the leverage.

  • It is probably regrettable so many assets are flowing into private markets, where it is harder for some investors to own them

  • The fees paid to private capital managers is largely wasted

  • Institutional investors are likely to be disappointed by private markets over coming years

The idea that private markets are a distinct and superior asset class, relative to public markets for the same underlying asset types, is now mostly bullshit. I say “now” because private capital returns used to be great, before all the low-hanging fruit was eaten; I say “mostly” because I have a totally unproven view that private funds’ complex debt structures and clever lawyers could make high leverage less risky. Rasmussen and I are of one mind on most of this, I think. But there is an area where we disagree. He thinks that private markets could be heading for a financial crisis:

[T]here are three ingredients to a financial crisis: consensus optimism, leverage and illiquidity. And private markets exhibit all three characteristics. Illiquidity may be fine on the way up, but, as investors in the Blackstone Real Estate Income Trust are discovering, it’s not ideal when market conditions change . . . 

[A]fter the dotcom bubble bursting, it took all the way until the end of 2014 for the VC index to regain the high water mark it set in early 2000. If the current listed equity market downturn persists, marks will eventually converge nearer to reality, leaving institutions nursing very real and illiquid losses.

I agree that high purchase prices, high fees, high leverage, and glue-huffing mark-to-model prices are probably a formula for losses. But losses, even big ones, do not a financial crisis make. In a financial crisis, losses are transmitted promiscuously from bad, mismarked assets to sound, rationally priced ones. No one knows what anything is worth, and all prices fall together.

What I picture happening in private markets is something more like this:

Pension manager: Could I have my money back, at the suspiciously high net asset values you published in your last quarterly report?

Private capital fund manager: No. [Marks assets way down over a period of months or years]. OK now you can have the money.

PM: These are bad returns.

PCFM: My bad [flies private to St Moritz].

No one on either side of this unpleasant exchange desperately needs to sell stocks or treasuries or whatever to raise cash to meet pressing liabilities. It is also worth noting that rational pricing is starting to take hold in at least some corners of private markets. PitchBook’s 2022 Global Fund Performance Report notes that VC funds globally reported negative quarterly returns in first two quarters of 2022. One-year rolling internal rates of return, having gone nuts in 2021, are headed back to earth:

Chart showing one-year rolling internal rates of return, according to PitchBook

Kyle Stanford of PitchBook writes, with bracing plainness:

The relative inability to exit in the current market and the decline in capital availability are circumstances that will lengthen hold times at best or lead to portfolio markdowns and possible down rounds …

With part of VC fund performance being attributed to the growth of private, not-yet-realised valuations, we expect venture performance in the near term to hinge on the fortunes of this group. The top of the late-stage valuation market has more quickly corrected than other areas of VC, leaving these company valuations exposed with revenue multiples from 2021 and no clear path to realise those values for investors.

I told Rasmussen that I didn’t see much chance of a private market crisis. He thinks institutional investors (“limited partners”) might get into a mad rush to sell their private market positions:

Fire sales are really the hallmark of a disorderly crisis. The question is, once the writing is on the walls that there need to be big markdowns, do LPs start trying to fire sale their LP interests? Given that this is coming from their illiquid buckets anyway, presumably the answer is “no” but if the consensus swings from thinking these are amazing to needing to reduce exposure from 40 per cent to 20 per cent, then things could turn ugly as there’s no easy way to exit.

I very much doubt this is going to happen. I see the LPs just waiting around, praying that things get better.

One good read

Profitable business for sale. Price ¥0. Must move to northern Japan.

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