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What’s Behind Private Equity’s Warnings About Debt?

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Private equity executives make no secret that relatively plentiful credit is the fuel power the surge in giant leveraged buyout deals, allowing the buyout shops to make acquisitions on companies which might have been untouchable in earlier eras. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to hear so many of them seem to be warning us about rising debt coupled with looser lending standards. Carlyle founder William Conway has rang the alarm bells with a memo of his that was “leaked” to the press everywhere. Remarks of Leon Black and Steve Schwarzman also have been read as warnings.
The latest entrant is the chief executive of BlackRock, Larry Fink. BlackRock is not a private equity shop—it’s an asset management firm that was spun-off of the Blackstone Group way back in 1992. But Fink’s background is in debt and private equity. He was a bond-trader at Credit Suisse and worked at Blackstone before the spin-off. And now he’s telling the Financial Times that the leveraged debt fueling the buyouts may be the next subprime mortgage crisis.

“If I was the chairman of the Federal Reserve, I’d be paying more attention to that because, to me, this is going to be tomorrow’s problem,” Mr Fink said in an interview with the Financial Times. “Standards have deteriorated to levels that we never even dreamed that we would see.”

So has Larry gone over to the other side? Perhaps. His business does compete for investment dollars with private equity firms and hedge funds, and so he may have a vested interest in seeing the current golden age of private equity come to an end.
But there’s a more paranoid theory that was suggested to us by a source (who requested that we keep him anonymous) who works at a smaller private equity shop. His theory was that the big shots in private equity were beginning to worry that the loose credit standards were allowing others in the buyout market to make bids that might once have been exclusively within the reach of the Blackstone’s, Apollo’s and KKR’s of the world. The relatively easy access to credit was fostering competition in the once cozy world of private equity, and driving-up the prices of the companies they want to take private. So they want to talk investors out of getting involved in lending into the buyout market in order to make it harder for competitors to raise funds.
Of course, as even our source admitted, this theory is more than a bit paranoid. But just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean Henry Kravis isn’t thinking about how to crush you.
BlackRock chief warns on leveraged loans [Financial Times]