Getting over the crisis
Interview with Thomas J. Barrack Jr. of Colony Capital
Please note that a full copy in .pdf of the magazine can be downloaded on the CVCA web site.
First, you survive the crisis, then you take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the confusion, advises CVCA keynote speaker Thomas J. Barrack Jr.
At this year’s CVCA Annual Conference, held in Calgary in late May, we had the pleasure to have with us, as a keynote speaker, Thomas J. Barrack Jr., Founder, Chairman and CEO of Colony Capital, LLC. Barrack’s keynote speech was of utmost interest and very enjoyable, in part because he presented the audience with his views on both sides of the harsh reality of today’s private equity buyout market, outlining the key challenges as well as some great opportunities.
Like many other private equity buyout firms across North America, Barrack’s firm, Colony Capital, is having a tough time adjusting to all the changes caused by what is considered to be the worst market ever for the U.S. investment community.
Even though Colony Capital has only one transaction of importance in Canada, the 2006 acquisition of Fairmont Hotels & Resorts Inc., Barrack believes Canada will be one of the big winners coming out of this global crisis. This is being driven by the country’s stronger banking system, smaller and better performing buyout funds, and fundamentally sound assets across numerous line of business. They weren’t as badly impacted by the sub-prime crisis due to the fact that they weren’t overly leveraged with debt.
Barrack recently took the time to expand on some of his views with Private Capital.
Chris Arsenault: What are your current views on the state of the private equity industry in general?
Thomas J. Barrack: Let me summarize a few of my instinctive views into two categories, short term and long term.
Short term: debt is the new equity (rescue, restructuring and acquisition of all forms of distressed debt); alternative energy subsidized platforms will be the flavour of the year; real estate will continue to get clobbered; private equity will perform poorly for another two years.
Long term: oil is the new gold; alternative energy projects will reduce oil supply and increase cost; real estate will be the asset of choice; technology will play a bigger role in communications and will impact the real estate model and travel; private equity will outperform other asset classes and VC and technology funds will be at the top of the list.
Arsenault: Do you see more challenges or more opportunities for private equity players?
Barrack: Colony Capital has a few billion in dry powder, and we are being asked: “Don’t go to fast, don’t be too opportunistic.” The reasoning behind such comments is understandable and is being felt across the whole private equity community. The major investors in private equity funds are banks, pension funds and endowment funds, and their contributions are directly impacted by the lack of distribution by private equity funds. They need distributions in order to make their contributions but they got a double hit, first by a slowdown in distributions AND simultaneously by a 50 per cent asset value loss.
The super funds are the ones that are suffering the most though, they lost more money in the last two years then they had made over the last 10 years. The fee dilemma created by these funds also didn’t help as some firms were leveraging their fees to a point where it killed the model of sticking to finite capital for fees and infinite capital for investments.
We are seeing great opportunities, sound businesses being deleveraged, and true value that can be built through time. We are going back to more realistic growth objectives and we expect to do very well in the mid to long term. In the short term we have to focus on the challenges from an inches and feet perspective, not miles. We need to fix the trust issues between fund managers, investors, lenders and the markets. High leveraging multiples must be part of our past.
Arsenault: How are private equity buyout funds, such as Colony Capital, reacting to the new paradigms?
Barrack: This crisis will pass like all other crises. The key is two-fold: First you need to survive; second, you need to take advantage of the opportunities created by confusion. Experience will show a lot of its value in the coming 18 to 24 months. Inflation will return exponentially within two to three years. Private equity & real estate will directly benefit from the short-term deleveraging and the long-term inflation.
Arsenault: What does your experience tell you?
Barrack: That we need to return to principled leadership by making decent and informed decisions based on true value for the long term. No short-term value creation thinking. Even though the short term will continue to be unpredictable, the medium to long term are totally predictable. We entered into an era of broken confidence, adrift in a sea of unfulfilled expectations. New equity owners will take the reins of very valuable operating companies, acquire assets on a lower cost base and start deleveraging. And with these new teams being incented with long-term value creation goals, investor returns will be restored, and with lower leverage ratios, confidence and trust will be restored. But first, you need to survive!
Arsenault: How much deleveraging needs to occur?
Barrack: $6.9 trillion. So we will still have pretty shaky grounds in the short term. In the long run, the winners will also include those able to convert debt into equity.
Arsenault: How about your views on Canada?
Barrack: Canada can be a strong beneficiary of what is happening. The U.S. is in its worst shape ever. While here in Canada, the banks are solid, we haven’t seen any hyper leveraging; no super funds were put in place. And in these times unique skills are required, different tools are needed, and Canada is better equipped to delicately take advantage of the opportunities created by the numerous short-term stimulus packages.
Arsenault: Any other points you would like to share?
Barrack: The private equity model is changing and the focus will be going back to slower, more realistic growth and building stronger companies. A clearer understanding of the fundamentals – honesty, integrity and force of character – will show. I think many older fund managers will take this opportunity to retire, giving more room to younger more energetic managers to step in. And hopefully they will do things right and slow and understand they need to bring the confidence back, the circle of trust.
This global crisis is a savior for some, as it basically gave all fund managers a free “Get out of Jail” pass for returns!