Private Equity and Corporate Governance. Thought of the Day 109.0

The two historical models of corporate ownership are (1) dispersed public ownership across many shareholders and (2) family-owned or closely held. Private equity ownership is a hybrid between these two models.

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The main advantages of public ownership include giving a company the widest possible access to capital and, for start-up companies, more credibility with suppliers and customers. The key disadvantages are that a public listing of stock brings constant scrutiny by regulators and the media, incurs significant costs (listing, legal and other regulatory compliance costs), and creates a significant focus on short-term financial results from a dispersed base of shareholders (many of whom are not well informed). Most investors in public companies have limited ability to influence a company’s decision making because ownership is so dispersed. As a result, if a company performs poorly, these investors are inclined to sell shares instead of attempting to engage with management through the infrequent opportunities to vote on important corporate decisions. This unengaged oversight opens the possibility of managers potentially acting in ways that are contrary to the interests of shareholders.

Family-owned or closely held companies avoid regulatory and public scrutiny. The owners also have a direct say in the governance of the company, minimizing potential conflicts of interest between owners and managers. However, the funding options for these private companies are mainly limited to bank loans and other private debt financing. Raising equity capital through the private placement market is a cumbersome process that often results in a poor outcome.

Private equity firms offer a hybrid model that is sometimes more advantageous for companies that are uncomfortable with both the family-owned/closely held and public ownership models. Changes in corporate governance are generally a key driver of success for private equity investments. Private equity firms usually bring a fresh culture into corporate boards and often incentivize executives in a way that would usually not be possible in a public company. A private equity fund has a vital self-interest to improve management quality and firm performance because its investment track record is the key to raising new funds in the future. In large public companies there is often the possibility of “cross-subsidization” of less successful parts of a corporation, but this suboptimal behavior is usually not found in companies owned by private equity firms. As a result, private equity-owned companies are more likely to expose and reconfigure or sell suboptimal business segments, compared to large public companies. Companies owned by private equity firms avoid public scrutiny and quarterly earnings pressures. Because private equity funds typically have an investment horizon that is longer than the typical mutual fund or other public investor, portfolio companies can focus on longer-term restructuring and investments.

Private equity owners are fully enfranchised in all key management decisions because they appoint their partners as nonexecutive directors to the company’s board, and some- times bring in their own managers to run the company. As a result, they have strong financial incentives to maximize shareholder value. Since the managers of the company are also required to invest in the company’s equity alongside the private equity firm, they have similarly strong incentives to create long-term shareholder value. However, the significant leverage that is brought into a private equity portfolio company’s capital structure puts pressure on management to operate virtually error free. As a result, if major, unanticipated dislocations occur in the market, there is a higher probability of bankruptcy compared to either the family-owned/closely held or public company model, which includes less leverage. The high level of leverage that is often connected with private equity acquisition is not free from controversy. While it is generally agreed that debt has a disciplining effect on management and keeps them from “empire building,” it does not improve the competitive position of a firm and is often not sustainable. Limited partners demand more from private equity managers than merely buying companies based on the use of leverage. In particular, investors expect private equity managers to take an active role in corporate governance to create incremental value.

Private equity funds create competitive pressures on companies that want to avoid being acquired. CEOs and boards of public companies have been forced to review their performance and take steps to improve. In addition, they have focused more on antitakeover strategies. Many companies have initiated large share repurchase programs as a vehicle for increasing earnings per share (sometimes using new debt to finance repurchases). This effort is designed, in part, to make a potential takeover more expensive and therefore less likely. Companies consider adding debt to their balance sheet in order to reduce the overall cost of capital and achieve higher returns on equity. This strategy is sometimes pursued as a direct response to the potential for a private equity takeover. However, increasing leverage runs the risk of lower credit ratings on debt, which increases the cost of debt capital and reduces the margin for error. Although some managers are able to manage a more leveraged balance sheet, others are ill equipped, which can result in a reduction in shareholder value through mismanagement.