The Omaha play: Buy-out firms are seeking out longer-term investments

WARREN BUFFETT’S Berkshire Hathaway is celebrated for identifying undervalued companies, buying them, holding on to them for years and reaping handsome rewards for its shareholders. Private-equity firms, by contrast, habitually deal in shorter timespans. Funds with a typical life of ten years aim to turn round troubled companies and sell them profitably within just three to five years. Recently, though, the private-equity industry has taken a page from Mr Buffett’s playbook.

Several buy-out firms have been setting up funds that intend to lock up investor funds for 20 years and to hold individual companies for at least ten. Their target net annual return of 10-12% is well below the 20% usually aimed for by ten-year funds, but they promise less volatility and lower fees—1% or so, rather than the customary 2%. Among the largest private-equity firms, Blackstone, the Carlyle Group and CVC have all set up dedicated long-term funds. The largest, Blackstone’s, has raised nearly $5 billion. Specialised upstarts such as Altas Partners of Toronto, which raised $1 billion for its first fund in the spring, are also getting in on the act.

Private-equity houses are establishing these funds mainly because their clients have an appetite for them. With interest rates at rock-bottom, investors are keen to find assets that can offer decent returns. Sovereign-wealth funds, which can invest for indefinite periods, are happy to accept long-term funds’ illiquidity. Endowments, too, are locking up money for longer.

Creating long-term funds is not simple. Ludovic Phalippou, from Said Business School at Oxford University, says that getting fee and incentive structures right can be “very tricky”. Fees, typically fixed for the life of a fund, may look reasonable at first but prove wrong later. Low fees may lure investors but give private-equity firms insufficient incentives to manage the investments diligently; high fees could allow firms to siphon off most of investors’ returns. In quick turnarounds, new managers are usually brought in with the promise of juicy bonuses linked to the sale; how, Mr Phalippou asks, could that be done with a 20-year horizon?

Some have concerns about conflicts of interest. One worried investor fears that large private-equity firms might earmark promising companies for their short-term funds—which remain their core business—leaving only mediocre ones for the new long-term funds.

Small, long-term specialists like Altas Partners should avoid that pitfall. Andrew Sheiner, Altas’s founder, says he intends to hold on to investments for up to 15 years, but to retain the flexibility to “own each business for as long as it makes sense”, so some may be sold sooner. Altas says it has attracted a lot of interest not only from investors but also from the owners and bosses of target companies, many of whom are tired, in Mr Sheiner’s estimation, of being handed from one private-equity owner to another, and instead seek a more stable, longer-term partner.

Despite their recent surge, longer-dated private-equity funds are likely to remain a niche. Last year investors committed $384 billion to the whole industry; the amount going into long-term funds is a small fraction of that. Only 5% of funds set up in 2016 have an intended lifespan longer than 12 years, according to Preqin, a data provider. The large, sophisticated investors who would be the best fit for such long-term funds can often build internal private-equity teams more cheaply. For others keen to invest in a portfolio of companies for the long term, there is another option. If even Henry Kravis, co-founder of KKR, a buy-out behemoth, has called Mr Buffett’s method “the perfect private equity model”, might it not make sense to invest directly in Berkshire Hathaway?

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