Private equity is being positioned as the villain of the current crisis. But we have an opportunity to reimagine the asset class’s role in society.

Let’s not kid ourselves that private equity was any more prepared for the onslaught of COVID-19 than anyone else. Even the best laid contingency plans have been tested to their limit by a global economy in lockdown. But – as the industry is fond of telling itself – private equity’s resilience is legendary. Sponsors have succinctly transitioned from emergency action, into a hard-nosed appraisal of the pandemic’s impact on consumer behaviour, business recovery rates, future fundraising and, of course, returns. Indeed, while there is no doubt that the vast majority of private equity managers are rolling up their sleeves, ready to support their portfolio companies through a grueling return to business as usual, it is also true that most didn’t miss a beat before – none too quietly – heralding the arrival of a once in a generation buying opportunity.

That is their job, of course – to maximise the money they make on behalf of their investors through savvy buying decisions and smart value creation. But swaggering headlines proclaiming Apollo’s plans to raise $20bn as distressed opportunities soar; KKR’s $20bn bargain hunt in March, while others were still reeling, and a bubbling sense of excitement across the industry, ultimately, at the prospect of others’ misfortune, shows a remarkable lack of sensitivity – and basic PR nous – that one would rather hope the asset class had grown out of.

Caught in the crosshairs

There is, I believe, a very real danger that the biggest challenge facing private equity in the years to come will be a brutal opinion backlash. In the US, the looter narrative promulgated by Elizabeth Warren has grown roots, resulting in failed bailout discussions with the authorities. And while in Europe, private equity-backed companies have not faced the same political gridlock – with major corporates from Europcar in France and Spain, and Apcoa Car Parks in Germany, currently able to access government rescue schemes – private equity is coming under growing scrutiny for its pre-crisis practices, ranging from aggressive dividend recaps, to high levels of leverage and exorbitant pay. It is inescapable, now, that many of the portfolio companies affected by these tactics will suffer – and some will not survive. Many jobs will be lost. Many will look for someone to blame.

Last time around, the banks were in the firing line. A decade later, and private equity is pervasive. The asset class employs vast swathes of the population. It rules the high street. I think, it is clear, that sights are now being trained on a different target. Buyout bosses are being primed as the villains of an economic catastrophe that some are predicting will exceed that of the Great Depression. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It is not inevitable that private equity is caught in the crosshairs of condemnation.

The biggest challenge facing private equity in the years to come will be a brutal opinion backlash

A new narrative

There is an opportunity here, every bit as real as the opportunity to snap up discounted assets, to ensure private equity claims its place in the recovery playbook. Indeed, there is even a chance for the industry to garner praise, by protecting the health of workers – which many firms have excelled at in recent weeks – and by safeguarding businesses, jobs and communities in the months to come. There is the chance, too, for private equity to show off some of its famous ingenuity, with innovative solutions for the global good. Long-term capital will be key to lifting businesses out of the depths of recession and while the relief and stimulus packages on offer are unprecedented, they rely too much on public subsidies, loan financing and guarantees. What companies will really need is more equity – not more debt. Now is the time for private equity to dig deep into its creativity toolkit, to find effective ways of teaming up with governments to deliver funds professionally and efficiently.

There is the chance, too, for private equity to show off some of its famous ingenuity, with innovative solutions for the global good.

By funneling private equity into the future of our economy and our society, a growth formula as we imagined it at IPEM 2020 – just a few weeks before the true horror of the Coronavirus made itself known – private equity can play a pivotal role in the global challenges of our times. The asset class can take a lead, not just in the rush to secure a vaccine or to shore up struggling industries during this crisis, but in driving the energy transition; relocalisation; digitalisation and equality of healthcare and education.

There was already a momentum building behind impact investment. It was in fashion. But it needs to become the norm. Just as the giants of the digital world are known as digital natives, so private equity’s giants need to become ESG natives. And they need to share that message with the world. Yes, private equity – and the pensioners and insurance companies it serves – will likely benefit from market dislocation in the years that follow this pandemic, but to truly emerge from the current crisis stronger and more powerful, the industry needs to reimagine its place in broader society. It is time for collective action. It’s time to reboot.