Keeping the lifeblood of capital flowing: the undervalued role of the secondaries market

Amid the rise of alternative assets over the last two decades, the number of investment opportunities available to both limited partners and general partners has grown. One such vehicle – the secondaries market – is attracting increasing amounts of attention and fundraising.

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Secondaries in the spotlight

Fundraising for the secondaries market – where investors purchase securities or assets from other investors rather than directly themselves – has finally bounced back after steep falls from the highs experienced during covid-stricken 2020, with H1 2023 showing a 28% year on year jump. Indeed, the broadsheet financial media has been awash with reports of large players raising billions specifically for allocation to secondaries, with the pervading sense from market players that it’s been both undercapitalized and, to a degree, an undervalued part the alternatives eco-system.

While the actual volume of transaction for secondaries didn’t meet expectations in H1, market commentators seem to believe an incredibly robust H2 will make up for any shortfall. What’s clear is that the market has matured and grown in terms of sophistication with players on both sides of the equation using ever more sophisticated asset performance and sectoral data to guide their investment strategies.

Liquidity and economic uncertainty are the key drivers

As the saying goes, not all heroes wear capes, and in a period where liquidity has been increasingly scarce, the secondaries market has been a lever that both GPs and LPs can turn to and pull. If capital is the lifeblood of a financial system, then secondaries can be seen as an essential safety valve that allows that capital to keep flowing through the arteries, meeting investors need for liquidity.

What’s also helping secondaries seize the moment is the ongoing sense of uncertainty still gripping major economic markets. Investors seem either cautiously optimistic or cautious with regards to optimism as they wait to see whether interest rates and inflation will begin to properly descend. On the private equity front, this ever-present uncertainty – the bête noir of deals – has kept the under-performance of 2022 rolling deep into 2023: reigned in investments, blocked exists, and stymied fundraising for many traditional PE transactions abound. The safety valve of secondaries therefore becomes ever more appealing.

The LP advantages

For limited partners, there are two clear ways to take advantage of turning to secondaries; firstly, if there’s a need to re-up for the next investment cycle and reshape their portfolio, then offloading that asset at the right pricing floor becomes an attractive prospect. Secondly, for limited partners on the buy side looking to find quality businesses or assets at a sometimes heavily discounted price on the dollar, there are great deals to be had. Of course, there’s a tango that takes place between buyer and seller and there were times post-2020 where there was no great alignment on price or valuation of assets, hence the slowdown in-deal activity. As things stand in H2 2023, deal flows are good, discounts deep and buyers and sellers are making matches.

On the private equity front, the last 12 months has seen the expansion of secondaries funds aimed squarely at the middle market, with an ever more diverse sectoral selection of well-positioned companies becoming available. Of course, middle market companies have a lot more room to grow both operationally and in terms of scale, and often benefit hugely from PE firms’ capital injections and M&A expertise. The feeling among many investors is that there are bargains to be had in this space, and sellers seem more willing in this illiquid moment in time to adjust their valuations to get deals over the line.

GP-led secondaries have changed market dynamics

Looking at the history of secondaries, there is another key development it would be remiss not to highlight. If first period of the market was defined by limited partners led deals, then the second (let’s call it ‘post-Covid’) has been defined by the rise of GP-led transactions. Historically many GPs have often found themselves facing what you could term a ‘capital conundrum’ – on the one hand the need get a return on an asset as the clock ticks down on a fund, on the other often knowing they may be selling that asset before its value has been maximized.

Enter, stage left: GP-led secondaries

The asset – often held in a vintage fund nearing expiration – is sold into a continuation fund which enables GPs to keep control of their asset, attract investment from new limited partners, and pay out their original fund investors. Holding on to high quality assets for an extended period can help GP’s ensure they extract every bit of value created by their work and effort. It also offers the original investor optionality; an escape hatch if the investor is looking for distributions in order to re-invest or re-allocate their capital due to internal or external economic factors, or the opportunity to roll their capital into the continuation fund and share on the potential upside, often at more enticing economic terms than the original fund vehicle.

The outlook

With momentum building in the secondaries space and greater supply coming on-line, it’ll be fascinating to see where both fundraising and transaction volumes finish in 2023. It’s worth remembering that these are complex financial vehicles; having the right support for the operational process of administering a secondaries fund and the right tools in terms of data capture, delivery and monitoring is essential.

Looking at the horizon there are three factors that might have both short and long-term effects on Secondaries.

  1. The potential impact in the US of the SEC’s Private Fund Reform Rule around Adviser-led secondaries and the requirement to obtain a fairness or valuation opinion from an independent party
  2. The speed at which private equity players embrace AI and Automation to enhance the deal making decisions
  3. To what extent the rise of NAV / Borrowing Base loans will eat into secondaries allocations

We’ll of course be opining on these factors in the months ahead, but, for now, in the ongoing race of financial performance, coming secondary seem to have its advantages.

Key contacts

Tim Toska

Tim Toska

United States

Global Sector Head, Private Equity


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