Funds find new options in slow LBO market

The market for large leveraged buyouts, virtually stalled by the credit crunch, may take a year or more to revive itself, but buyout executives said at a conference last week that they are finding new strategies to deploy cash.

Those strategies include boosting investment in emerging markets, taking minority stakes in companies and buying distressed assets, all of which do not require as much of the cheap bank debt that fueled the recently stalled buyout boom.

Investcorp, for instance, just raised a $1 billion fund to invest in rapidly developing countries in the Arabian Gulf, according to Christopher O’Brien, head of private equity and real estate for the $15 billion fund manager.

“The size of opportunities will be in the $1 billion to $5 billion range for private equity firms and it’s unrealistic to think larger than $5 billion right now,” said Richard Friedman, head of merchant banking at Goldman Sachs. “The key is that firms show patience during this period and not force things.”

The cheap debt that fueled the market for large buyouts was driven by investment banks, which repackaged deal debt into securities, including collateralized loan obligations (CLOs), and sold it to investors. But that market imploded after a spreading mortgage crisis drove investors away after their asset values plummeted.

“The rise of the mega-buyout was dependent on the CLO market and, until that comes back, you will see deals in the $1 billion to $5 billion range,” said Thomas Lee, the veteran buyout executive and president of Lee Equity Partners, a $7 billion firm.

In the meantime, private equity firms are casting a wide net for new opportunities, such as non-control investing in companies, a significant shift in an industry that typically demands control.

Other firms are moving quickly into buying bankrupt or troubled company debt. But the strategy has risks, particularly overseas, where corporate law is less developed.

For instance, Oaktree Capital and Avenue Capital recently invested in the debt of a distressed Indonesian company, according to Avenue CEO Marc Lasry. The matter ended up in court, where a judge concluded the company had been “fraudulently induced” to accept the investment and canceled the claims, he said. —Reuters