High-net-worth investors have embraced the strategy of placing a portion of their equity positions in alternative assets classes, including private equity investments. Private equity money is invested in new companies or start-ups that have significant growth potential. Private equity firms also try to turn around or improve the companies they invest in by changing the management team or streamlining business operations.

Private equity investing has gained traction due to its history of high returns, which is not easily achieved through more conventional investment options. However, private equity carries a different degree of risk than other asset classes due to the nature of the underlying investments.

Key Takeaways

  • Private equity money by wealthy clients is invested in new companies or startups that have significant growth potential.
  • Private equity investing often have high investment minimums, which can magnify gains but also magnify losses.
  • Liquidity risk exists since private equity investors are expected to invest their funds with the firm for several years on average.
  • Market risk is prevalent since many of the companies invested in are unproven, which can lead to losses if they fail to live up to the hype.

Understanding Private Equity Risk

Private equity firms pool investor money with other sources of borrowed financing to acquire equity ownership positions in small companies with high growth potential. The investors are typically wealthy individuals and institutional investors, which are companies that invest money on behalf of their clients. Institutional investors can include pensions, mutual funds, and insurance companies.

Private equity firms attempt to improve the companies they invest in by replacing the management team and board of directors. The firms also engage in cost cutting, adding products and services, as well as selling part of the companies in a spinoff to raise funds. All of the actions of the firm are to increase the return on investment for the private equity investors involved.

Private equity firms are involved in several industries, including:

  • Technology, such as telecommunications, software, and hardware
  • Healthcare, including drug companies
  • Biotechnology, which utilizes living organisms to help produce health-related products, biofuels, and food production.

Although this may seem like a smart investment strategy, there are a number of different risks associated with investing in small growth businesses, especially those that are still in their startup phases.

Investment Minimum

Private equity investing has a high barrier to entry, meaning it requires an enormous amount of capital for a minimum investment, which can be as much as $25 million. There are some private equity firms that cater to a lower threshold with investment minimums of $250,000, but they are still higher than most traditional investment minimums. As a result of the large amounts committed, private equity investors stand to gain substantially on even a small percentage gain from their investment. However, investing can be a double-edged sword, meaning that those large sums of money can equally lead to significant losses from a negative return on investment.

Liquidity Risk

Liquidity risk is a concern for investors in private equity. Liquidity measures the ease at which investors can get in or out of investments. Earnings growth for small companies can take time, which is why private equity investors are expected to leave their funds with the private equity firm between four and seven years on average. Some investments require even longer holding periods before any returns are experienced. In other asset classes, such as stocks, mutual funds, or exchange-traded funds (ETFs), investors can sell an investment on the same day if needed. However, private equity investments do not offer that luxury.

Market Risk

Private equity investors also face greater market risk with their investments compared to traditional investments since there's no guarantee that any of the small companies in which private equity firms invest will grow at all. Failure is much more common among these companies, with only one or two out of a dozen making any significant return for the firm and its investors. An ineffective management team, a new product launch that fails, or a new, promising technology that becomes obsolete due to competitors, can lead to significant losses for private equity investors.

Although other asset classes carry market risk, default risk is lower with more established companies. Also, private equity investments may involve the company using a significant amount of debt, which can be costly to service through interest payments over time.

Overall, the risk profile of private equity investment is higher than that of other asset classes, but the returns have the potential to be notably higher. For investors with the funds and the risk tolerance, private equity can be a lucrative investment for a portion of a portfolio.