Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Private Equity Tsunami: A Dog that Isn't Barking

Josh Kosman's The Buyout of America isn't a great book but it is better than so-so.  As a history of private equity, it serves up a lot of edifying anecdote, albeit without much by way of disciplined evaluation.  The subtitle is designed to beguile you: "How Private Equity Will Cause the Next Great Credit Crisis."  The introduction serves up a hair-raising, if hypothetical, encounter between President Obama and his secretary of treasury, set for late 2011, in which the secretary explains to the President how private equity defaults are  driving the economy off a cliff.

Strictly speaking, we're not there yet, and who can tell what will happen in the remaining months.  But there is pretty good reason to believe that it simply isn't happening--that we will suffer nothing like the cascade of defaults that Kosman predicts, or at least not this year.

I don't count this as quite as big a blooper as it might seem: writers make this kind of mistake a lot and it really doesn't do much of anything to take away from the merits of the argument in general.  Moreover, I think Kosman probably had a reasonable basis for making his prediction when he did.  His problem: interest rates.  My guess is that he wasn't counting on anything like the near-universality of near-zero interest rates that appears to be our blessing and fate at least for the moment.  Low rates can be forgiving (sometimes too much so?) in the worst  of investment climates, and we can hardly be disappointed if, indeed, it turns out that he was wrong.  Meanwhile it appears the PE industry might have read his book: the business press reports a lot of restructuring of private equity loans, not least to head off precisely this sort of calamity.

He may address this issue in the paperback version which came out last November (the Kindle, which I read, appears to be based on the hardback).   I don't see anything about it at his personal website, but he does offer one beguiling freebie: a catalogue of "speculative grade" (heh!) credit facilities and bonds due through 2014.    The list  is a year old but it is free.  Moody's website offers an update, but it'll set you back $550.  Let's hope that Korman shares his copy again. 

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