Brazil, The U.S., And the Realities of Private Equity

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by: The Deal Economy

By Robert Teitelman

The New York Times' Andrew Ross Sorkin pops up Tuesday, Day 2 in the Times' Era of the Paywall, in São Paulo, Brazil, where he's discovered the country's booming buyout business, which, he tells us over and over again, uses no leverage. I should italicize that: They use no leverage.

This he views as not only virtuous, but a kind of rebuke to the American and European private equity industry, which he defines as a band of financial engineering mega-maestros who "pursue elephant-sized deals," ignoring, unlike the Brazilians, smaller, family-owned companies that can be tuned up and provided growth capital to expand and make everyone happy without leverage. Indeed, Sorkin argues that these virtuous Brazilians are more akin to "what the fledgling private equity industry circa the 1970s in the United States pursued." That is, before they became greedy barbarians in the '80s.

Now, in fact, Sorkin's report from Brazil does cast a light on an interesting growth story -- and one, as he suggests, that has attracted the acquisitive attention of major U.S. players, like Blackstone Group (NYSE:BX), which last year took a stake in one of the leading lights in Brazil, Pátria, and J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. (NYSE:JPM), which took a majority stake in another, Gávea. But Sorkin is so intent on confirming the cartoon version of private equity, which the Times has had a hand in creating, that he ends up all over the place.

Begin with Brazil, which is growing rapidly and is attracting lots of international flows of capital -- enough that the country, which has had an historical tendency to boom and bust, has tried desperately to control. Buyouts in Brazil are quite recent, and the industry, compared to Europe and the U.S., is still immature.

For all its recent successes, Brazil is just developing the kind of capital markets that can support larger buyout efforts. As a result, it's the kind of situation financial types just love: Very little competition, large numbers of targets, a general lack of transparency, big fat profits. As Sorkin's own sources explain, lending rates are high, and so they're forced to use no leverage (or little leverage) and seek out opportunities where they can make a big difference by injecting some capital or providing some expertise.

If rates fell, they would rush to use leverage. But by then, competition will have increased and the game will have grown tougher. As Arminio Fraga, the founder of Gávea, told Sorkin at the very end of the column: "There will be more leverage for sure. Hopefully, we won't do anything too stupid when the opportunity becomes real."

So much for virtue.

If Sorkin overpraises Brazil, he presents a picture of U.S. private equity that's simply bizarre. Sorkin still seems to be fixated on the 2005 to 2007 era of megabuyouts, when the largest private equity firms grabbed huge corporate assets like Freescale (NYSE:FSL), First Data (NYSE:FDC), TXU, HCA and a dozen others. They used leverage, and that leverage in some cases caused problems when credit froze. Sometimes they banded together in consortiums.

In that bubble era of abundant liquidity, leverage was easy, terms loose and financial engineering rife. But there are two points to be made about that era that Sorkin ignores: That era (for now) is over, and simply to characterize U.S. private equity as a bunch of big operators looking to snare "elephant-sized" corporate assets is a distortion of reality.

This is not an apology for U.S. private equity, which, in Fraga's phrase, will engage in stupid deals when opportunity beckons -- perhaps sooner than we wish. But most private equity in the U.S. takes place in the middle market, despite the fact that the Times tries to pretend that only Blackstone, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. (NYSE:KKR) and Carlyle (OTC:CARYK) matter.

Just last week was the annual "InterGrowth" meeting of the Association for Corporate Growth, an organization of middle-market players including corporates, lenders, advisers and investors. This is no small show: Well over 2,000 blazered dealmakers milled around a fancy hotel in San Diego, networking like mad. A large number of them engage in private equity throughout the middle market. Most of them have personal relations with smaller companies, many of which are family owned -- just like those in Brazil.

Many middle-market deals also get done with less leverage than, say, a megabuyout. Indeed, the '70s still live in middle-market buyouts (truth be told, a lot of the big buyout shops have an awful lot of operational expertise; the charge of financial wizardry is overstated in "normal" markets). But unlike Brazil, there is plenty of competition in the U.S. middle market. Many of these firms are sizable, and the scale is striking. We are currently building a national database of these folks called City by City (see here for the first four cities); the infrastructure is both impressively dense and extensive. And arguably what makes it go is the stimulus of private equity.

There's a larger point here in how blithely Sorkin sweeps the middle market away. Politicians talk continually about how "small business," which really means the middle market, leads the way to job creation in America (usually as a prelude to a tax-cut argument). But like the Times, political attention on the national level is nearly always focused on the largest corporations and, particularly when the economy sours, the transgressions of the largest buyout shops. Generally, the middle market is ignored.

Brazil, in terms of private equity, may be just beginning its takeoff. Firms like Gávea and Pátria may be the KKRs and Blackstones of that country, if the country can stay aloft. But as these firms grow, and as the market matures, more competitors will fill in behind them, reaching further into the Brazilian commercial establishment. Competition will increase, but financing will ease. They will use leverage. They will lose their virtue. It's just the way things are.

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.