What is Private Equity?

Most concisely, private equity is the business of acquiring assets with a combination of debt and equity. It is sufficiently simple in theory to be frequently compared to the process of taking out a mortgage to buy a home, but intentionally obfuscated in practice to communicate a mastery of complex financial science. When encountered, the latter should be thought of largely as a marketing effort. Vocabulary aside, the process is simple. Incredibly detailed and at times chaotic, but not the product of financial wizardry. 

The Private Equity Training course will focus on the acquisition of operating businesses with a history of positive cash flow using the aforementioned combination of debt and equity. In an effort to get readers up to speed expeditiously, in this video (Part 1 of 4) we will cover a few basic concepts, including:
  1. Private Equity Defined
  2. Comparison of an LBO Model to a Three-Statement Model (please see video)
  3. The Benefits of Leverage

The Benefits of Leverage: Debt + Equity

The benefits of leverage are easily captured by comparing identical investments that differ only in the amount of leverage employed. If the value of the asset grows over time, the amount of leverage used to acquire the asset will enhance the amount by which shareholder value grows. Think about the two terms as follows: 

Debt is borrowed money that earns interest until it is repaid. There are two components to debt payments: interest and principal. Interest is the rate charged by the bank to loan capital to a borrower, and the rate is determined by the amount of risk assumed. Principal payments, which are defined by an amortization schedule, are payments made to reduce the balance of the loan. The final payment, known as the “balloon” payment, coincides with the maturity of the loan. For so long as the investment performs, and principal and interest payments remain current, the remaining principal balance for interest bearing debt will remain fixed.  (This definition combines a lot of vocabulary. Future lessons will break this down to make concepts easier to grasp.)

Equity, on the other hand represents ownership. It is the value available to shareholder’s after all debts have been paid. It follows that as an asset increases in value, so does shareholder’s equity. 

Per the table below, in both the Equity Investment Case and the Levered Investment Case, the shareholders own 100% of the same asset even though $100 and $25 of equity was used respectively to purchase it. In year one both investments grow in value by 5%, but a 5% increase on a $100 investment acquired with $75 dollars of debt causes the equity value to grow by 20%, which compares nicely to 5% growth in the unlevered example.

(Note: Excel workbook available for download.)

Note that the Value Change and the Cumulative Value Change are identical in both scenarios. The only variable contributing to the different return profiles is the amount of debt used to acquire the asset, which brings me to my next point. In this course we are exploring the acquisition of businesses with a history of positive cash flow. This cash flow can be used to further reduce the debt burden by paying it down over the course of the investment, which reduces interest expense and lowers the risk profile of the business. The terrific artistic rendering below, where E.V. stands for enterprise value, further demonstrates how this also benefits equity value.

As these simple explanations might suggest, the limiting factor for the private equity industry was not ingenuity. It was the availability of capital. Private equity gained popularity quickly as debt became increasingly available to finance what had previously been considered too risky. The amount of debt available to finance an acquisition has fluctuated over time. In the 80s, easy money, which refers to lax lending standards, made outsized returns easier to achieve for the small number of private equity firms looking to benefit from this growing alternative investment trend. To highlight the benefits and dangers of excessive leverage two examples are included below. The first was a wild win for investors in the early 80s, and the second a modern-day private equity horror story.

Introduction to Private Equity Series: