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Private equity managers expect another boom year in 2022

Private equity deal-making and fundraising is expected to continue apace in 2022, although midmarket managers in both the U.S. and Europe are mindful of high valuations and inflationary pressures as they deploy record amounts of cash.

In total, 24,722 deals were announced in 2021 worth a disclosed aggregate $1.2 trillion, up from 17,618 deals worth just under half that amount the year before, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence data.

A record $1.32 trillion in dry powder sat in the asset class's coffers as of September 2021, according to Preqin's Alternatives in 2022 report. Fundraising is expected to remain strong, and limited partners are likely to maintain their focus on re-ups as established managers quickly return to market with larger vehicles, managers said.

Given the combination of available dry powder, the number of funds in market and the huge amount of interest in the asset class and its performance, it will be "a really strong year" for investments and exits, Pete Wilson, head of U.K. midmarket at pan-European manager IK Partners, said.

"Most private equity firms invest through the cycle — so while deploying, they are also exiting. And there's very little, in my view, that I can see that is going to change fundamentally this year to what we've seen over the last 12 months."

Deal-making comes with a price tag

While bullish on the deal-making outlook, managers are wary that the market is not free from risk. For both general partners and their investors, high valuations will be top of mind in 2022.

"What’s pushing valuations up? It's more demand. So, there's more volume pushing valuations up," Jason Barg, partner at U.S.-headquartered finance-focused buyout house Lovell Minnick Partners LLC, said. "I don’t foresee that there's going to be a lot of bargain shopping in 2022."

Clear business growth and value creation plans, sector expertise and sourcing bilateral deals are key in this environment, managers said.

If private equity firms have not got a value creation "playbook" at this point in time, it is going to feel quite hard to provide compelling answers to investors who are mindful of high valuations, Richard Swann, partner and member of U.K.-headquartered Inflexion Pvt. Equity Partners LLP's executive and investment committees, said.

Still, some managers expect growing valuations to moderate as central banks throttle back their pandemic stimulus measures. Norm Alpert, founding partner and co-president of U.S. midmarket investor Vestar Capital Partners LLC, said government stimulus "has been a mighty powerful source of driving valuations up, because there's just more liquidity globally searching for returns."

Now the U.S. Federal Reserve has signaled its intention to taper the bond purchases that infused cash into the economy during the pandemic and to tighten monetary policy by raising interest rates. "If global liquidity starts to stabilize and maybe even pull back, those are de-stimulative policies," Alpert added.

The costs of doing business

Macro factors including rising inflation, supply chain issues and talent are also being assessed. Managers are testing their assumptions, mitigating risks before buying into companies and evaluating existing business plans.

Following years of low interest rates, inflationary pressure is something "everybody is keeping their eye on," Lovell Minnick's Barg said.

Wage inflation, a knock-on effect of supply chain issues post-pandemic, has been the biggest surprise, Inflexion's Swann said. "We probably didn't collectively think there'd be a problem with haulage in the U.K. market or what the effects of working from home had on talent pools outside of London."

Many of Inflexion's portfolio companies are "not really constrained by the market," Swann said; rather, "they're constrained by the capacity of people and people driving technology. If you can't get the people, you can't grow."

Competition for talent is a cross-sector issue, IK's Wilson said. Losing a key team member can set business plans back considerably. "The cost is clear and easy and you can wrap your arms around that. But the time to re-recruit or find a new team this is months or potentially a year that you lose, which is significant."

Tech-focused U.K. growth investor FPE Capital LLP has found rising demand for software services coupled with poaching in the industry has created a "tightness in the tech labor market," Managing Partner David Barbour said. Retaining and recruiting talent is something both it and all its companies "work very hard at," he added. "It's going to just become a bigger issue."

Morale is also a concern, Vestar's Alpert said, with workers just plain worn out.

"The impact on people's behavioral health and ability to maintain the pace is something that has been rearing its head and is only going to continue," Alpert said. Demographic trends around the number of people entering the workforce plus retirements are probably going to exacerbate it, and some companies will respond by shifting to more automation, he predicted.

Cautious optimism

Most managers Market Intelligence spoke with believe the momentum behind the asset class will continue to drive high levels of M&A activity.

Beyond significant volatility in interest rates, IK's Wilson said there were no obvious signs in the near term of a slowdown in activity because the supply/demand drivers will "continue to dictate that activity." Although inflation and labor pressures are "nontrivial challenges … they're not enough on their own to have such a big impact."

"There is a lot of momentum, and you've got a big population of private equity-owned deals. You've got a willingness of sellers to sell to private equity, you've got the capital there, you've got increased allocation," Mads Ryum Larsen, a managing partner and head of investor relations at IK Partners, said. There will be "hiccups" in valuations, and the stock market may see falling multiples, "but I think it's going to be shorter-term volatility rather than sort of a big trend change right now. I don't see that coming at least in near to midterm," Larsen said.

Vestar's Alpert is more cautious in his outlook. Years of "extraordinarily low" interest rates for an "extraordinarily long time" have spurred on a generally stable and consistently growing economic environment, which "tends to instill a lot of confidence in people's ability to forecast the future," he said.

"It's been this very sort of benign, self-supporting virtuous circle between exits, fundraising, more purchases, more exits, more fundraising, more purchases," he added. Alpert said he would not be surprised if 2022 is "more of the same" of what was seen last year, or if it is a more challenging year.

"Did going through the pandemic set up another long-term upcycle? Or are we going to be in for a challenging period sort of just dealing with the aftermath because it wasn’t a finite event?" Alpert said. "That's probably the thing I worry about first."