Should Private Equity be involved in High Street retail?

 

2014 started with much media speculation that a variety of well-known retailers – or more correctly, their Private Equity(PE) owners were preparing to float on the Stock Market.

They included Fat Face (77% owned by PE firm Bridgepoint) Card Factory (owned by PE firm Charterhouse) and Poundland (76% owned by Warburg Pincus).

This resurgence of so-called “animal spirits” seems to be fuelled by a perceived improvement in consumer confidence, investor appetite driving the search for better returns than those available in a low interest rate debt market, the lack of debt available for refinancing businesses and the need for PE owners as investors to realise profits.

This may herald a resumption of the pre-2008 practice of PE buying out retailers, often as a public to private deal, repaying themselves by loading them with debt, and then flipping them back into public ownership.

The 2008 Global financial crisis put this practice on hold and indeed it has placed enormous financial pressure on some PE funds due to the lack of debt available for refinancing their acquisitions.

Indeed many PEs have ended up with burnt fingers, such as Guy Hands’ Terra Firma’s purchase of EMI,which defaulted on its debt to CitiGroup,  and US-based Bain Capital LLC (owned by Mitt Romney), which purchased the purchase of Toys “R” Us, which has seen a decline in revenue.

High Street retail casualties over the last five years have included Nicole Farhi, Comet, JJB Sports, Jessups, Blockbuster, Clinton Cards, Habitat, Focus DIY, Floors-2-Go, the Officers Club, Oddbins, Woolworths and MFI.  Some, such as Focus, JJB, Nicole Farhi, MFI and Comet were PE owned.

With banks having tightened up so significantly on lending in recent years PE sources of funding are inevitably more focused on investors such as pension funds and not surprisingly fund managers are generally risk averse being responsible for other people’s money.

Despite the economy picking up, the buy, refinance and flip PE model may not work in the way it did. The growth in online shopping, concentration of retail parks, intense competition and changing consumer habits may yet thwart many PE deals.

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