With close to USD $8.3 trillion in assets under management and growing, sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) are beginning to play a major force in the world of private equity and alternative assets. In 2020, the Sovereign Wealth Fund Index recorded 294 private market investments, totaling USD $77.16 billion, compared to 301 investments at USD $74.73 billion in 2019. Covid-19 has played a large part in the rise of SWFs investing in the private markets.
While the public markets were extremely volatile at the start of the pandemic, valuations in the private markets remained calm during this period, with SWFs reallocating capital to safe haven investments such as private equity, real estate and infrastructure. With record low interest rates, SWFs have been further encouraged to turn away from listed opportunities, such as bonds, and turn towards longer-term investments with a higher return.
According to PitchBook, since last April, SWFs have taken part in USD $50.2 billion worth of private equity deals – up 13% from the same period last year. This increased investment in the private markets begs the question of whether SWFs are the next big competitors to private market funds.
Differing investment approaches
Traditionally, SWFs, like most institutional investors, built their alternative investment portfolios through committing capital to private equity funds and letting the GPs manage their money. However, SWFs have recently questioned this investment method for a number of reasons, including the longer-term investment period of SWFs, the high private equity management fees and funds’ overall performance in the current environment of low valuations. This has led to an increased number of direct and co-investment deals that were quite rare ten years ago.
2020 was a record year for direct sovereign wealth fund investments with SWFs doubling their direct investment. Publicly disclosed figures show the rise of direct investment from USD $35.9 billion in 2019 to $65.9 billion in 2020. In a direct investment a SWF manages and executes transactions on its own, bypassing a private equity fund’s GP, fee structure and carried interest. This allows a SWF to set up their own fund, and act as the fund’s GP.
With direct investing becoming increasingly popular, so is co-investing. Co-investing is when a SWF invests alongside a partner, such as a private equity fund or venture capital fund, or alongside like-minded investors, such as other SWFs or pension funds. This method of investment reduces a SWF’s risk exposure, while allowing for more flexibility in portfolio construction and control over exposure to risk factors.
SWFs have also been taking advantage of investing in the secondaries market. The secondaries market is perfect for SWFs who want a mechanism to restructure an unbalanced portfolio, or want to utilise the market to access fund interests that are further along in a fund’s lifecycle at a reduced price. This allows SWFs’ capital to be put to work immediately, rather than having to wait for a capital call.
Finally, what was the most traditional, and passive way of private market investment is for SWFs to invest in private equity funds as the LP. However, this method, where a SWF selects a GP and a private equity fund to manage their money, now only accounts for 12% of deals according to a report by BCG.
Rivalry on the horizon?
With the world’s SWFs doubling their direct investment in 2020, SWFs are quickly becoming private equity’s biggest rival. The long-term investment horizon of SWFs means that they have more ‘patient capital’ than private equity funds and can thus be more flexible in their investment strategies. This frees up SWFs to act more like venture capital firms, investing in early-stage, high-growth companies that are initially, an illiquid investment.
SWFs also benefit from sitting on a significant amount of dry powder which makes capital calls easier to navigate, and less of a concern. Coupled with the private market industry’s low valuations, SWFs have a newfound edge in the private equity space.
Finally, the private equity industry’s fee model provides another reason for SWFs to turn to direct investments and co-investments and away from investing in private equity funds. Investing directly allows for SWFs to avoid the traditional 2 and 20 fee model of private equity funds.
We are seeing an increase in SWFs opting to invest directly into the private markets. As SWFs have long-term investment horizons, they are able to be more patient in their investments, and target illiquid alternative asset classes with ease. The combination of low valuations, available dry powder, long-term investment strategies and so called ‘patient capital’ makes SWFs a worthy adversary to private equity funds.
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