Private equity is capital made available to private companies or investors. The funds raised might be used to develop new products and technologies, expand working capital, make acquisitions, or strengthen a company's balance sheet. Unless you are willing to put up quite a bit of cash, your choices in investing in the high-stakes world of private equity are minimal.
- Private equity investing includes early-stage, high-risk ventures, usually in sectors such as software and healthcare.
- These investors try to add value to the companies they invest in by bringing in new management or selling off underperforming parts of the business, among other things.
- The minimum investment in private equity funds is relatively high—typically $25 million, although some are as low as $250,000.
- Investors should plan to hold their private equity investment for at least 10 years.
- However, there are non-direct ways to invest in private equity, such as funds of funds, ETFs, and special purposes acquisition companies.
Why Invest in Private Equity?
Institutional investors and wealthy individuals are often attracted to private equity investments. This includes large university endowments, pension plans, and family offices. Their money becomes funding for early-stage, high-risk ventures and plays a major role in the economy.
Often, the money will go into new companies believed to have significant growth possibilities in industries such as telecommunications, software, hardware, healthcare, and biotechnology. Private equity firms try to add value to the companies they buy and make them even more profitable. For example, they might bring in a new management team, add complementary companies, aggressively cut costs, or spin off parts of the business that are underperforming.
You probably recognize some of the companies below that received private equity funding over the years:
- A&W Restaurants
- Cisco Systems
- Network Solutions
Without private equity money, these firms might not have grown into household names.
Minimum Investment Requirement
Private equity investing is not easily accessible for the average investor. Most private equity firms typically look for investors who are willing to commit as much as $25 million. Although some firms have dropped their minimums to $250,000, this is still out of reach for most people.
Fund of Funds
A fund of funds holds the shares of many private partnerships that invest in private equities. It provides a way for firms to increase cost-effectiveness and reduce their minimum investment requirement. This can also mean greater diversification since a fund of funds might invest in hundreds of companies representing many different phases of venture capital and industry sectors. In addition, because of its size and diversification, a fund of funds has the potential to offer less risk than you might experience with an individual private equity investment.
Mutual funds have restrictions in terms of buying private equity directly due to the SEC's rules regarding illiquid securities holdings. The SEC guidelines for mutual funds allow up to 15% allocation to illiquid securities. Also, mutual funds typically have their own rules restricting investment in illiquid equity and debt securities. For this reason, mutual funds that invest in private equity are typically the fund of funds type.
The disadvantage is there is an additional layer of fees paid to the fund or funds manager. Minimum investments can be in the $100,000 to $250,000 range, and the manager may not let you participate unless you have a net worth between $1.5 million to $5 million.
Private Equity ETF
You can purchase shares of an exchange-traded fund (ETF) that tracks an index of publicly traded companies investing in private equities. Since you are buying individual shares over the stock exchange, you don't have to worry about minimum investment requirements.
However, like a fund of funds, an ETF will add an extra layer of management expenses you might not encounter with a direct, private equity investment. Also, depending on your brokerage, each time you buy or sell shares, you might have to pay a brokerage fee.
Special Purpose Acquisition Companies (SPACs)
You can also invest in publicly traded shell companies that make private-equity investments in undervalued private companies, but they can be risky. The problem is that the SPAC might only invest in one company, which won't provide much diversification. They may also be under pressure to meet an investment deadline, as outlined in their IPO statement. This could make them take on an investment without doing their due diligence.
A recent development in private equity is the use of crowdfunding to raise capital, especially for new ventures, from individual investors, each contributing a relatively small amount. Today, there are several platforms offering a range of investment opportunities—but note that these investments can be highly risky. Also. be sure that if you participate in equity crowdfunding, make sure you do so as an investor, and not as a donor (as in the case of Kickstarter-like crowdfunding platforms.).
The Bottom Line
There are several key risks in any private equity investing. As mentioned earlier, the fees of private-equity investments that cater to smaller investors can be higher than you would normally expect with conventional investments, such as mutual funds. This could reduce returns. Additionally, the more private equity investing opens up to more people, the harder it could become for private equity firms to locate excellent investment opportunities.
Plus, some of the private equity investment vehicles that have lower minimum investment requirements do not have long histories for you to compare to other investments. You should also be prepared to commit your money for at least ten years; otherwise, you may lose out as companies emerge from the acquisition phase, become profitable, and are eventually sold.
Companies that specialize in certain industries can carry additional risks. For instance, many firms invest only in high technology companies. Their risks can include:
- Technology risk: Will the technology work?
- Market risk: Will a new market develop for this technology?
- Company risk: Can management develop a successful strategy?
Despite its drawbacks, if you are willing to take a little more risk with 2% to 5% of your investment portfolio, the potential payoff of investing in private equity could be big.