History of Private Equity and Venture Capital - The Third Private Equity Boom and The Golden Age of Private Equity (2003–2007)

The Third Private Equity Boom and The Golden Age of Private Equity (2003–2007)

As 2002 ended and 2003 began, the private equity sector, had spent the previous three two and a half years reeling from major losses in telecommunications and technology companies and had been severely constrained by tight credit markets. As 2003 got underway, private equity began a five-year resurgence that would ultimately result in the completion of 13 of the 15 largest leveraged buyout transactions in history, unprecedented levels of investment activity and investor commitments and a major expansion and maturation of the leading private equity firms.

The combination of decreasing interest rates, loosening lending standards and regulatory changes for publicly traded companies would set the stage for the largest boom private equity had seen. The Sarbanes Oxley legislation, officially the Public Company Accounting Reform and Investor Protection Act, passed in 2002, in the wake of corporate scandals at Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, Adelphia, Peregrine Systems and Global Crossing among others, would create a new regime of rules and regulations for publicly traded corporations. In addition to the existing focus on short term earnings rather than long term value creation, many public company executives lamented the extra cost and bureaucracy associated with Sarbanes-Oxley compliance. For the first time, many large corporations saw private equity ownership as potentially more attractive than remaining public. Sarbanes-Oxley would have the opposite effect on the venture capital industry. The increased compliance costs would make it nearly impossible for venture capitalists to bring young companies to the public markets and dramatically reduced the opportunities for exits via IPO. Instead, venture capitalists have been forced increasingly to rely on sales to strategic buyers for an exit of their investment.

Interest rates, which began a major series of decreases in 2002 would reduce the cost of borrowing and increase the ability of private equity firms to finance large acquisitions. Lower interest rates would encourage investors to return to relatively dormant high-yield debt and leveraged loan markets, making debt more readily available to finance buyouts. Additionally, alternative investments also became increasingly important as investors focused on yields despite increases in risk. This search for higher yielding investments would fuel larger funds, allowing larger deals, never before thought possible, to become reality.

Certain buyouts were completed in 2001 and early 2002, particularly in Europe where financing was more readily available. In 2001, for example, BT Group agreed to sell its international yellow pages directories business (Yell Group) to Apax Partners and Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst for £2.14 billion (approximately $3.5 billion at the time), making it then the largest non-corporate LBO in European history. Yell later bought US directories publisher McLeodUSA for about $600 million, and floated on London's FTSE in 2003.

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