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With Banks Skittish, Europe’s Private Equity Firms Look Elsewhere

Mark Scott|The New York Times
Friday, 5 Oct 2012 | 2:11 AM ET

As the sovereign debt crisis has slammed Europe, Cinven has had to get creative to finance buyouts.

Stacks of 5-Euro bills
AP
Stacks of 5-Euro bills

When the London-based private equity firm wanted to buy CPA Global this year for $1.5 billion, Cinven looked beyond banks, the usual source of money. Along with debt from HSBC and JPMorgan Chase, it secured almost $200 million of higher-interest loans from nontraditional lenders. It also had to spend roughly $600 million of its own cash.

"The debt markets have been challenging since 2007," said Matthew Sabben-Clare, a partner at Cinven. "There's a degree of selectivity by the banks over geographies and certain industries. Banks are more regionally focused than before."

Europe's financial woes are forcing private equity firms like Cinven to revise their deal-making playbooks.

As banks pull back, private equity firms are increasingly turning to high-yield bonds, mezzanine loans and other types of debt that carry higher interest rates. Some are appealing directly to institutional investors like pensions and sovereign wealth funds to finance specific deals.

Given the tight credit, most firms are having to put up more capital to get deals done. Cash now accounts for more than 50 percent of the average European buyout, according to the data provider S.&.P. Capital I.Q. Five years ago, that number was 33 percent. In the United States, cash represents 38 percent of the average buyout, mainly because firms have access to a variety of financing options, like capital markets.

Private equity firms "are having to widen the net to find the loan financing they need," said Kristian Orssten, head of European high-yield and loan capital markets at JPMorgan Chase in London. "Many lenders in Europe are getting to grips with their own funding challenges."

The financing troubles for buyouts are reflected in the weak deal-making environment.

Although firms are raising money to buy distressed assets in Europe, many have remained on the sidelines as the debt crisis continues. So far this year, European acquisitions by private equity firms have totaled $23.2 billion, a 38 percent decline from the same period in 2011, according to Thomson Reuters.

Firms have pulled some deals altogether, fearing that asset prices could fall even further. After months of negotiations, Blackstone and BC Partners dropped their $3.2 billion bid for the frozen-food company Iglo after failing to come to terms with its private equity owner, Permira, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter who declined to speak publicly.

In good times, European buyout firms relied heavily on cheap bank lending. Flush with cash, the Continent's financial institutions provided almost 80 percent of financing on deals, often keeping the debt on their own balance sheets instead of selling it off to other investors.

But as the debt crisis worsened, banks curbed their lending in an effort to meet stricter capital requirements, which penalize firms for holding risky investments like debt connected to private equity deals. Firms like Deutsche Bank and Royal Bank of Scotland have sold loans at a discount to other investors to shed unwanted assets.

Even when banks are willing to finance deals, they are limiting their bets. Local banks are focusing mostly on deals in their home countries, and they are often willing to finance only a portion of the buyouts.

As a result, private equity firms are often tapping multiple lenders, even when the costs of a buyout are less than $1 billion. To finance its £465 million ($749 million) acquisition of the British company Mercury Pharma, Cinven capitalized on its 20-year relationships with certain banks, securing £235 million of financing from a consortium of firms, including Lloyds Banking Group.

With banks being selective, private equity firms have had to tap other markets.

High-yield debt investors, in search of better yields, have been receptive. The European private equity firm Apax issued almost $1 billion of high-yield bonds in February as part of its $2.1 billion acquisition of the telecommunications company Orange Switzerland. Intelsat, one of the world's largest satellite operators, owned by a BC Partners-led group, raised $1.2 billion this year in an effort to refinance its debt.

"The high-yield market in Europe is exploding," said a partner from a leading European private equity firm, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It's attracting a lot of institutional investors who are chasing high returns." The amount of European high-yield bonds connected to investments from private equity firms has risen 49 percent, to $13.5 billion, since 2007, according to the data provider Dealogic.

Private equity firms are also stepping in to fill the void. The Scandinavian firm EQT Partners turned to a consortium of financial players, including Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, for around $510 million of mezzanine financing for its $2.3 billion acquisition of the German medical supplies company BSN Medical in June.

"As bank funding has become more expensive, it has opened up an opportunity for new types of financing," said Sachin Date, head of private equity for Europe, the Middle East, India and Africa at the accounting firm Ernst & Young in London.

But such debt carries its own set of risks. Generally, loans from nontraditional lenders carry higher interest rates, which can be costly for companies, especially in the current economic conditions. If the financial burden became too high, it could force borrowers to default on their loans and exacerbate the region's woes.

"The crisis has hit much harder than people had expected," said Nicolas de Nazelle, a managing partner at the private equity adviser Triago in Paris.