PEO 2.0:<br/>BLACKSTONE'S AWESOME FUND IV(2)

Problems? What problems? You've never had it so good.

Private equity may be caught up in a political storm on either side of the Atlantic, but at the end of the day, what people really want to read about is big numbers. In mid-May, PEO reported that The Blackstone Group's $6.45 billion fourth fund had “shot the lights out”, according to one investor, making more than $15 billion in profit for its investors. It was the most-read story on the site since this column last appeared.

According to a limited partner, investors in Blackstone IV will be booking a return of 3.5 times their original investment, while the firm's 80 private equity investment professionals will net carried interest of around $3 billion (€2.2 billion). The investor told PEO: “This fund has shot the lights out. If anyone doubts the reality of mega funds economics, then they could do worse than to look at BCP IV's performance. It is sensational.”

Blackstone's executives contributed $150 million to the firm's fourth fund, which closed in 2002 with $6.45 billion of commitments. This means they have made 20 times their initial investment.

Of course returns of that magnitude infuriate legislators, particularly when they are only attracting marginal rates of taxation. But that is a glass half-empty attitude and one not shared by buyout legend Henry Kravis, though he did strike an unusually mystic note in the second top story of the month.

Kravis believes private equity is in its golden era, and though he admitted its frenetic pace may slow down, he said no bubble was set to burst. “Will there be a bubble? I don't even know what that means,” he said speaking at the Canadian Venture Capital and Private Equity Association's annual meeting. In the future, Kravis said he expects the industry to match or better its current, astronomical success.

He did concede that private equity had done a “lousy job” of explaining itself and needed to better its public relations. That may have been an understatement. In the UK, private equity had a bigger platform from which to better communicate than ever before. However, it struggled at times to match the occasion; at others it was seen to be at war with itself.

First up was the BVCA, the UK industry association, which gave evidence to the UK Parliament's Treasury Select Committee investigating the industry on June 12. The session quickly turned hostile as the BVCA struggled to answer to the committee's satisfaction.

The next day Wol Kolade, the trade body's chairman, questioned whether the BVCA was fit for purpose, while industry insiders queued up to criticise its handling of the hearing, and the recent political storm surrounding the industry. 24 hours later, Peter Linthwaite, the BVCA's chief executive of two years, fell on his sword, another big story on PEO.

After a week of finger-pointing and recriminations, industry bigwigs from KKR, 3i, Carlyle and Permira had another shot at setting the record straight. By the end of a three hour session, a few core messages were clearer. But just as in the US, some sort of increase in tax seems now inevitable, if only because the legislators appear intent on ‘nailing the rich guys’.

The tax story clearly has some way to run, and publicly firms are resisting any change to the tax regime to their disadvantage. At press time, investors were piling into Blackstone's partial float. To them, the idea that tax might be the issue to derail the buyout juggernaut seems a distant concern. We are, they'll tell you, in a golden era indeed.