What Have You Made on Private Equity? Who Knows?!

There are lies, damned lies and statistics – and then there’s IRR. The internal rate of return metric used by private-capital managers has long had critics in finance and academia because it is easily manipulated and hard to compare with the transparent returns of, say, stocks and bonds. Still, it survives because there is no killer alternative.

Now, after a spell when private equity has struggled to sell portfolio companies due to unpredictable stock markets and a lack of high-yield debt funding, investors in such funds are increasingly looking at cash-based measures of performance. The numbers aren’t great: Cash distributions by the biggest private equity firms to their investors dropped by almost half between 2012 and 2023, Bloomberg News reported last week.

For the whole industry, the picture of decline over the past two years is similar, according to data from MSCI. For the first nine months of 2023, its most recent complete data, total payouts from global private equity funds, excluding venture capital, were $166 billion. In the first nine months of 2021, that number was $357 billion. Include venture capital and the drop is even greater with 2023 distributions less than one-third of those in 2021.

Another way of tracking this is to calculate capital distributions as a percentage of capital paid in to funds in each quarter. On that basis, the first half of 2023 saw payouts running at a similar rate as mid-2020, the depths of the Covid pandemic. Those periods saw the worst numbers since the global financial crisis of 2007-2009.

Private Equity Pay-Outs to Investors Collapsed Last Year