Tuesday, April 03, 2007

A Few Thoughts About Private Equity

As I write this I am admiring the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. It is 17 degrees outside. It was 80 when I left Indiana. Gee, you mean you can't believe the Weather.com's predictions for Oregon's mountain country? With all this time on my hands that was supposed to be dedicated to learning to fly fish, I find myself just staring at these magnificent mountains while random thoughts flow through my mind. The thought that keeps appearing most often is,"What do all of the private equity deals mean?" Are they a good thing, or a bad thing. Are they an indication of just how cheap the market is, or are they just one more Wall Street gimmick that is going to crash and burn one day? Obviously, our firm has been collectively thinking about this for a long time. But in recent weeks, the buyouts have reached the point where Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, Blackrock, and Texas Pacific seem to be buying a company a day. These are high risk players, but they are obviously not fools. If you would have told me a year ago that companies as diverse as Biomet, TXU, The Tribune Companies, First Data, and Equity Office Properties would all be bought out by private equity firms in the span of six months, I would have told you that the Dow Jones Industrials would be over 14,000, maybe pushing 15,000. Something just does not add up about the rampant, almost frantic, pace of the buyouts and stock market's apathetic attitude towards it. Let me see, last month the markets sold off 5.5% in about a week. At the very same time, large buyouts were being announced almost everyday. Don't investors realize that the private equity money is only buying companies where cash flows over the next 5-10 years are expected to produce an annual rate of return of 15%-20%. Don't investors realize that this onslaught of private equity buyouts is going to keep rolling until prices of US stocks are much higher, and thus, puts a floor under any big market correction? But, as I sit here pondering the disconnect between big money buying everything in sight and the stock markets trading at PE multiples about the same as they were at the bottom of the bear market in 2002, I catch a beauty of a thought. If it's correct it might answer both behaviors. Let me sleep on it and I'll see if it still makes sense tomorrow. My wife just came in with snow shoes and a hiking map. She says we are adapting.