What Is the Most Attractive Segment of the Private Equity Market?

February 24, 2021

Column chart showing Net IRR Performance by Fund Size within private equity. Chart subtitle: Smaller buyout funds carry attractive return potential while also having the greatest performance variability in the private equity ecosystem Chart description: Y-axis shows Net IRR Performance, ranging from -15 to 45%. X-axis shows Fund Size by categories: Small ($6B). Each category has the full first through fourth quartile range in dark gray, then the 25th-75th percentile range overlaid in a lighter transparent gray, then a circle point marking the Median fund's net IRR performance. The Small Buyout category shows the greatest performance dispersion (median Net IRR of 13%, a 1st quartile range of 21–37%, and a 4th quartile range of -10–6%) but also the highest net IRR performance shown. Each consecutive category has slightly smaller bars for the full quartile range. Chart sources: Burgiss as of March 31, 2020, Pitchbook, Private iQ, and Morningstar. Performance shown reflects North American buyout funds with vintages between 2002–2016; funds with more recent vintages are not included as their performance is not yet meaningful.

As private equity matures further as an asset class, median private equity returns will continue to move closer to the public markets. Nevertheless, as a result of active management and private market inefficiencies, the top quartile to median spread for private equity is still more than 2x greater than it is for public market-oriented managers. When we take a closer look at fund performance within private equity, there is significantly more upside as well as performance variability for smaller buyout funds as compared to larger buyout funds. As seen in this week’s chart, funds that are less than $1B in size had a median Net IRR of 13%, a 1st quartile range of 21–37%, and a 4th quartile range of -10–6% whereas funds greater than $6B in size had a median Net IRR of 9%, a 1st quartile range of 17–23%, and a 4th quartile range of 2–8%.

This performance dispersion is largely driven by smaller funds sourcing opportunities outside of intermediated processes, leveraging a repeatable and focused operational playbook to professionalize and grow portfolio companies quickly, and a growing list of paths to liquidity, including larger funds with an increasing amount of dry powder that are sourcing investments out of smaller managers’ funds. With that said, larger funds buy companies that are typically more mature, have built-out teams, and are capable of weathering business shocks with greater success, which accounts for the tighter band of outcomes at the larger end of the market.

Due to COVID and an inability to meet with potential investors in person, first-time funds and emerging managers which typically fall in the “small” fund size had difficulty raising capital in 2020. This dynamic is expected to have two significant effects on the 2021 private equity ecosystem: 1) first-time funds and emerging managers fundraising is likely to be more active in 2021 and 2) dry powder has been further concentrated in larger funds, which should create an increasingly attractive exit environment for smaller funds.

Given the compelling upside opportunity of investing in smaller funds and an expected increase in the number of these funds raising capital in 2021, these managers represent an attractive area of the private equity market to be allocating capital towards. Given the greater performance variability of smaller funds, allocations to funds at this size should be focused within a program that allows for a number of high-quality commitments, such as those provided by fund-of-funds.

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The opinions expressed herein are those of Marquette Associates, Inc. (“Marquette”), and are subject to change without notice. This material is not financial advice or an offer to purchase or sell any product. Marquette reserves the right to modify its current investment strategies and techniques based on changing market dynamics or client needs. Opinions, estimates, projections, and comments on financial market trends constitute our judgment and are subject to change without notice. Past performance does not guarantee future results. 

The opinions expressed herein are those of Marquette Associates, Inc. (“Marquette”), and are subject to change without notice. This material is not financial advice or an offer to purchase or sell any product. Marquette reserves the right to modify its current investment strategies and techniques based on changing market dynamics or client needs.

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