Most private equity firms look to invest in only 7 to 10 portfolio companies over the 10-year life of each fund; fewer portfolio companies means more value-add per investee (a resource allocation argument). Keeping this in mind, it is quite important that each investment represent a great opportunity. One failed investment won’t necessarily bring the whole fund down, but it may materially impact overall returns. So, how speculative is private equity deal selection?
When a private equity firm evaluates a potential investee, firstly they prognosticate potential returns and the likelihood of meeting their target return (often 25%+ pa). If presented with five potential investees simultaneously, the question becomes, which investees will meet our target return and do we have the resources to engage them all. If resource constraints limit the number of simultaneous deals, focus is constrained to deals that present the most opportunity on a risk-adjusted basis.
However, even with very detailed analysis, many assumptions underpin all of this prognostication and in the end, private equity deal selection is all highly speculative. Moreover, even if there is a real science to assessing current deals against each other, how do you compare these deals to future deals. What would a firm do if presented with 10 great opportunities all at once? Would it invest in all of them if analysis showed they’d all meet the target return? There must be some thought given to private equity deal selection of tomorrow. Maybe the 10 great deals today will pale in comparison to the 10 great deals tomorrow. So, how does one decide that a deal today is one of the best opportunities that the firm will see over the life of the fund?
Of course, there is no real answer to this. I just wanted to bring this topic to light to show how subjective and speculative private equity deal selection and the investment decision really is. But, this is what private equity firms value themselves on; their ability to remove as much speculation as possible and to make essentially profitable decisions. On the other hand, maybe this discussion sheds light on why we’re seeing so many write-downs of late. Maybe funds were too busy trying to get their money out the door and weren’t focusing enough on the comparative value of future opportunities. Of course, everything is clear in hindsight.