• Erin Greenfield

Barbarians Hawking “Private Credit”

Private equity managers have seen high growth. Should we consider them as investments?

Private equity managers have grown quickly
Private Equity - Looking at the four large publicly traded firms

In my last blog, I reviewed King of Capital – The Remarkable Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of Steve Schwarzman and Blackstone – by David Carey and John E. Morris. I liked the book and I recommend it to anyone interested in the private equity industry, especially if you like financial history and books with lots of detail. Reading this book inspired me to look at private equity managers as a potential investment for our portfolios. This is Part II of my look into the private equity industry.

McKinsey says there are now nearly 7,000 private equity firms. A very small fraction of these firms are now publicly traded. Blackstone was the first very large U.S. private equity manager to go public. Their IPO was in 2007. The big four U.S. firms were all looking to go public around that time, but the ensuing credit crisis forced KKR, Apollo, and Carlyle to delay their IPO’s until 2010, 2011, and 2012, respectively.

In this blog, I focus on these big four publicly traded firms. The list of publicly traded firms also includes Ares and Blue Owl in the U.S., Brookfield and ONEX in Canada, Bridgepoint, 3i, and Intermediate Capital in the U.K., EQT in Sweden, Partners Group in Switzerland, and Tikehau in France.

Most private equity firms, including many of the largest, are still private partnerships – including Apax, Permira, Bain, CVC, Warburg Pincus, Silver Lake, and TPG (…although the latter has hired investment bankers to explore going public). The exhibit below will give you an idea of industry rankings.

After the big four went public, for a long time many investors did not seriously consider these firms for investment. One reason was because they had limited published track records, and the industry was relatively young. A second reason many investors avoided considering these firms was because, despite going public, they were still legally structured as partnerships. This meant they did not pay income tax and had to flow all their income to their partners for tax purposes. This meant investors in the firms would each receive a “Schedule K-1”, and their tax returns would be more complicated, especially for mutual funds and investors outside of the U.S. Neither of these factors are applicable anymore, as all the big four firms now have close to (or more than) 10 years of audited financial results available, and to increase their attractiveness to a wider swath of investors, they converted from partnerships to regular corporate structures between 2018 and 2020.

However, it is very possible investors waited too long to consider these companies as investments! Recently, their stock prices have taken off. Consider Blackstone as an example. For many years, their stock went nowhere. The firm went public at $31 per share in 2007, and at points in 2019 their stock traded for $32 per share. For years you could buy Blackstone’s stock for $50 or less, or around 15 times projected earnings. However, since the covid pandemic, Blackstone’s share price has soared to $144 per share, representing almost 30 times next year’s projected earnings. Similarly, for years you could have purchased KKR’s stock for around $25, or 10 times projected earnings. But today it trades for almost $74 per share, representing about 18 times next year’s projected earnings. For years, stocks of the big four were largely ignored, despite the companies’ impressive growth. However, in today’s stock prices, investors now seem to be assuming that high growth will continue for a while.

The charts below will give you an idea of the size of the big four publicly traded private equity firms. Blackstone is the largest, and as CEO Schwarzman says, they are the “reference institution” in the industry.

One of the most exciting business books of all time is Barbarians at the Gate. The title came from a statement by Ted Forstmann of private equity firm Forstmann Little who apparently said, “We need to push back the barbarians at the city gates” in reference to KKR during the epic fight for RJR Nabisco in the 1980’s. Since the 80’s, the industry has changed considerably. One of the biggest trends has been for private equity firms to diversify away from traditional “leveraged buyouts”. The biggest such move has been into “private credit”, hence the title of this blog. Today, all the big firms talk of the amazing opportunities and limitless growth potential of moving into private credit. Private credit is a large market comprising many different types of investments but can probably be most accurately described as the fixed income market outside of publicly traded securities, such as bonds and debentures. This mix shift away from private equity and into private credit along with real estate, infrastructure, and venture capital, means increasingly these firms are referred to as “alternative asset managers”, as opposed to “private equity firms”.

Apollo has been the biggest mover into private credit. Although the chart above makes Apollo seem large, 70% of their assets under management are now in “credit”. In fact, Apollo are only about half the size of Carlyle in traditional private equity. As can be seen in the ranking of firms provided earlier, if you just look at the traditional private equity business, Carlyle is ranked #4 globally, whereas Apollo is ranked #14.

Financial reporting by private equity firms is complex. As a result, the industry has come up with some unique measures to report their results. One of the most important such measures, is fee-related earnings, or “FRE”. The purpose of this measure is to remove many of the volatile components of earnings, such as investment results and incentive income (also referred to as performance fees, carried interest, or just “carry”). The chart of fee-related earnings below helps provide another picture of the relative size of the big four firms.

So Blackstone is clearly the biggest, and as can be seen below, Blackstone trades at a much higher valuation than the other large publicly traded private equity firms.

You would think Blackstone’s higher valuation would mean they have the highest growth. Granted, their growth has been high, but over the last five years they have had the slowest growth in assets under management, as can be seen below.

That said, likely due to their scale, Blackstone has been able to grow earnings at the quickest rate over the last five years, but not by much in comparison.

Maybe Blackstone trades at a higher valuation because their current and/or projected growth is superior? Well in 2021, Blackstone’s growth has been fantastic, but KKR’s growth has been even better. Yet as shown earlier, KKR trades at a substantial discount to Blackstone.

And, although analysts predict earnings to grow fastest at Blackstone over the next two years, analysts do not forecast very high earnings growth for any of the big four over that time.

It is not uncommon in the investment world to see the largest firm in an industry trading at a premium valuation relative to peers. Many investors prefer to invest in the largest firm in an industry, even if it means paying a higher valuation. I think investors get a feeling of safety and comfort from investing in an industry leader. There is often a mentality that the winner will keeping winning. Investors can always argue that scale will be the leader’s competitive advantage. Even if it turns out that an investor is wrong in picking an industry leader, they know they will not feel too bad, because lots of other investors will be wrong with them. Sometimes this strategy works. For instance, if you had invested in market leaders such as Royal Bank of Canada, or JPMorgan, or Amazon 10 years ago, you are probably pretty happy today. However, it does not always work. If the leader’s growth slows down, big expensive stocks can go sideways for years as they grow into their valuation. We saw this with Walmart from 2005-2015, Home Depot from 2005-2011, and Microsoft from 2005-2013.

What do I like about this industry? Or the big four in general?

  • Growth – As several of the charts above show, the growth in this industry has been phenomenal. Institutional investors are allocating more and more to “alternative investments”, especially with interest rates at very low levels. All the big firms’ executives are expecting high growth going forward, including in the retail high net worth channel, perpetual/permanent capital products, and private credit.

  • People – The top firms tend to attract the best and brightest employees. The top four have on average around 2,000 employees each, with about a quarter of those being investment professionals. To give you an idea of calibre, the CEO of Blackstone recently said they had 29,000 applicants for about 100 analyst positions.

  • Reputation – The top firms have very good reputations. They are seen as safe hands which attracts investors to their funds. Big institutional investors do not want relationships with all 7,000 private equity firms. They want to do more with fewer firms. They want sophisticated managers that have breadth of strategies around the world and varied by vintage, so they can commit over multi-year periods.

  • Diversification – Not only can investing in a private equity manager add diversification to our portfolios, but the large firms themselves are becoming increasingly diversified (by fund vintage, asset class, distribution channel, geography, end customers, and employee talent). This should mean their performance will be more consistent and predictable over time.

  • Track Record – The industry has proven over several decades that it is a real business. It has persevered and even prospered during several crisis periods (i.e., the tech bubble, global financial crisis, and covid). There are questions regarding just how good industry performance has been over time, but I would note the large firms have tended to outperform industry averages.

  • Balance Sheets – All the big four firms have strong balance sheets, with cash and investments exceeding debt. Some are stronger than others, as can be seen below. Also, some firms have high accrued unrealized performance fees net of related compensation, which gives confidence that realized performance fees and therefore distributable earnings will be healthy in coming quarters.

What do I dislike about this industry? Or the big four in general?

  • Compensation – The compensation for employees and executives in this industry is very high. Each firm is different, but the firms usually take 15-20% of investment gains (called “carried interest” or “performance fees”), then they distribute about 40-70% of this to individual executives and employees. To add insult to injury, the executives and employees pay very low tax rates on this type of income. These individuals also receive large amounts of stock-based compensation, which the firms ignore in their calculations of adjusted earnings since they argue they do not have to pay for this expense in cash. Based on my calculations, compensation averaged around US$1 million per employee over the last twelve months, or US$1.7 million per employee if I include increases in unrealized carried interest they will receive when investments are sold. Companies must disclose the compensation of their top 5 executives for the last three years. The average for the big four firms is US$38 million per executive per year. As with investment banks, it is hard not to see these firms as just vehicles to pay founders and employees first and foremost, and shareholders a distant second. The companies argue they need to pay this much to retain and motivate people, but I worry if you pay people this much, it is easy for them to leave to retire, or start their own firms. The companies also argue employees are aligned with fund investors since they earn performance fees, and they are aligned with shareholders since they own company stock. I disagree with this. If you buy shares of Berkshire Hathaway, you are very aligned with Warren Buffett since he owns lots of stock but takes very little compensation for himself. Your return will equal his return, on a per share basis. This alignment is just not possible with publicly traded private equity firms. Sure, the executives own a lot of stock, but since they take massive amounts of compensation from the company, their returns will always far exceed your returns. You will never be aligned.

  • Governance – The big four firms have complex ownership structures whereby founders control most of the votes and pick most of the directors. This is changing slowly, triggered by the founders handing over to a new generation of managers. Apollo seems furthest into the change as they have announced a move in the near term to 1-share-1-vote, as well as a majority-independent board. Apollo thinks this change could mean they will be the first to be included in the S&P500 index. KKR has also announced they will move to 1-share-1-vote but have given themselves until 2026 to do so. I would also note these businesses are very prone to conflicts of interest. For example, how do executives decide which funds participate in the best deals? And how do they decide on the extent to which executives can participate in these deals?

  • Cyclicality/Volatility – We know from history that the private equity business and credit markets are cyclical. A large portion of the profit earned by these companies comes from performance fees, which can be volatile and inconsistent, and sometimes must even be rebated if funds do not meet certain hurdle rates. Most investors can tell you from experience there are times when it is not fun to own cyclical companies. Buying cyclical companies when they are doing well, and profits are high can often later lead to investor regret when the cycle turns down. All this said, this industry has shown they can not only weather cycles, but they can take advantage of them.

  • Opaque – As with other financial industries such as banking and insurance, there are many examples of opaqueness in the alternative asset managers. For example, it is difficult to say with certainty how well investments are performing, or if they were purchased at reasonable prices, or whether management’s valuations are too aggressive, or deal terms are deteriorating. We are forced to rely on management’s comments, their internal valuation models, and their track records. Another example of an opaque area is private credit. Currently there is a massive land grab to match insurance and pension liabilities with private credit. If the loans are poorly underwritten, credit costs could be higher than expected. This could cause systemic problems in the next big downturn. But there is no way of knowing until the time comes.

  • Treadmill – The traditional leveraged buyout business is a treadmill. Private equity firms spend 18 months flying around the world meeting with big institutional investors hat in hand asking for commitments to a new fund. They then spend the next 3-5 years looking for big companies to buy to deploy the money raised. After that, they spend the next 3-5 years selling those companies to realize gains. Then, they repeat the process all over again. To me this seems like a lot of work, and there is risk of one fund going badly making it tough to raise future funds. If the pace of fundraising slows, or deploying cash slows, or the size of companies they can buy goes down, then revenues go down. This is different than traditional asset managers, who can choose to buy and hold, and do not usually have difficulty finding companies of an adequate size. All else equal, it is always better to invest in businesses with more recurring business models, sticky products, and high customer retention.

  • Permanent is not always Permanent – Industry executives are aware that a more recurring business model would be ideal and are therefore trying to develop and offer more products that are more “permanent” or “perpetual”. To the unaware, this sounds like closed-end funds, or an entity like Berkshire Hathaway. However, within assets classified as permanent or perpetual, the firms include any product for which they are not contractually obligated to eventually return the assets to investors, as they are with traditional private equity limited partnerships. So open-end funds, separately managed accounts, and hedge funds are included, even though investors can redeem with 30-90 days notice. This taxonomy seems misleading.

  • Complexity – These firms and the products they offer are very complex. They require extensive analysis and specialized knowledge to understand them. They are subject to many rules and regulations. Changes in tax laws could have a material impact on them. Like many investors, I prefer simple investments. Complex investments can often perpetually trade at a discount versus the overall market.

  • Competitive – As mentioned, there are close to 7,000 private equity firms. Therefore, when any business comes up for sale, there is naturally always an auction that will drive up the price, likely to the point of silliness, thus limiting returns going forward. A top executive at KKR recently noted the industry is now sitting on $865 billion of "dry powder", up from just $150 billion in 2015. If you leverage that up with debt, that is a very large amount of money these managers will be forced to spend over the next few years.

  • Commodity – Most financial businesses are commodities. Products can be copied. Business models can be copied. When new lucrative areas are identified, smart people and huge pools of capital quickly show up to take advantage, quickly competing away excess returns. Origination of private credit is currently the hot area that everyone is chasing. Executives are promising huge growth in this area, but it is just a matter of time until the excess returns are competed away here too.

  • Core Business is not the Focus – There are several examples where these firms are moving away from their core traditional business. These include the moves into private credit, permanent/perpetual products, retail high net worth distribution, aviation finance, special purpose acquisition vehicles, venture capital, and insurance/reinsurance subsidiaries. Sometimes, when firms try to move away from their core business, it can be a signal that growth has slowed. The new areas might turn out to have worse economics and/or promised growth may not materialize. Firms might not be as successful executing in these new areas. Management attention can be diverted away from the core business, and therefore it can suffer.

  • Prone to Interest Rate Hikes – Some products offered by these companies could become less attractive if interest rates rise. Customers, whether they are pensions, endowments, insurance companies, or high net worth individuals could move back towards traditional bonds and away from “alternatives” if interest rates rise. Also, it could be more difficult to finance large leveraged buyouts if cheap debt is not available. And portfolio companies (whether in credit or equity portfolios) could suffer if their interest costs rise, or if the economy slows due to higher interest rates. Recently, the Financial Times wrote that the big fear among private equity investors is “that low interest rates and government stimulus programmes had lifted the performance even of poorly run private equity firms. ‘They all think they’re geniuses because their companies are doing really well’ one said. ‘But if it weren’t for central bank policy, things would be very different.’”

  • High Fees – These firms earn management fees and performance fees. Together, these fees can add up to 4% per annum for customers. So far, their fee rates have been stable. However, asset managers dealing mainly in public markets have seen fee compression over time. Why can’t we see fee compression over time at private asset managers? In addition to management fees and performance fees, these firms can also charge capital markets fees, monitoring fees, acquisition fees, origination fees, and advisory fees. The firms would rather earn these fees themselves than pay outside external investment banks and providers for these services. Regardless, as an investor in a private equity fund, I would feel annoyed that my fund manager is triple and quadruple dipping by taking these additional fees. The managers sometimes rebate management fees when they collect these other charges, but sometimes it is only by 50% of the additional fees.

  • Illiquidity – “Alternatives” are illiquid compared to more traditional investments. When everything is going well, investors in alternatives are fine with this illiquidity. However, I think they could miss having some liquidity if these markets crash at some point. It is not hard to envision a day when big pension funds will have to take material write downs on venture capital, real estate, infrastructure, private credit, and private equity, leading their trustees to promise more focus on liquid markets, which come with better transparency, governance, regulations, and protections.

What differentiates the big firms? What do I like and dislike about each?


As noted previously, Apollo is unique among the big four firms in that 70% of their assets under management are in credit. They see credit as a high-growth market and their CEO says they have the largest addressable market of any of their competitors. I would counter that many firms (big and small) are already aggressively pursuing this market, although not in the exact same manner. Apollo is unique in that they are taking over a large insurance company called Athene, an entity they helped create about a decade ago. Athene raises funds by selling fixed annuities as well as entering reinsurance contracts to manage similar blocks of business for other insurers. Apollo then invests the funds by originating all sorts of private loans that earn higher interest rates than publicly traded bonds. Fixed annuities have a relatively long life, averaging about 7 years, which provides Apollo the opportunity to match these liabilities with long-dated loans. Apollo competes here against MunichRe, SwissRe, and FifthThird. The business model is not revolutionary. Athene copied it from SunAmerica, which has been part of AIG for over 20 years. These large loans that Apollo is originating used to be offered mainly by big commercial banks like Chase and Citi, but since the global financial crisis the business has increasingly moved out of banks to firms like Apollo who are more innovative, can be more confidential, faster to make decisions, and better able to attract top talent. Apollo feels the shift by investors to prefer private credit over publicly traded bonds will continue. Insurers previously hired asset managers such as PIMCO, BlackRock, or DoubleLine to manage their public bond portfolios, but competition and low interest rates have made it impossible to earn adequate profits in public bonds, so insurers are increasingly turning to alternative asset managers who will originate and hold private loans. Examples of this shift were seen this year when Blackstone entered deals to manage assets for AIG’s life and retirement business, as well as Allstate’s life insurance business.

In an age when many alternative managers are moving more towards growth investing, I like that Apollo are known as value investors.

I also like Apollo’s CEO. He seems bright, intense, and not afraid to be different. He seems better able to articulate strategy than Apollo’s other managers. It seems he was thrown into running the business due to Leon Black’s association with Jeffrey Epstein, so it is unclear if he will stick around over the longer term. He openly admits he is not involved with the day-to-day running of the firm. It seems to me, it would be a big negative if he steps away again. I like their very explicit 5-year growth and profitability targets. And I like their moves towards more standard governance. I do not like that they are giving away a whack of equity to executives to get it done. Also, I am wary of their shift in compensation more towards carried interest. I am not convinced it improves retention, it seems to reduce and limit income accruing to shareholders, it moves more expenses out of adjusted non-GAAP earnings, and I would note it means these many millionaires will pay even lower tax rates going forward. I am also not convinced that private credit will always earn higher returns versus publicly traded bonds. The CEO says Apollo can earn 150-250 basis points above similarly rated bonds, but their investor slide deck makes it seem like they are already at the bottom of this range, and more competition is coming.


Blackstone is the biggest firm, and with this comes diversification and very high margins, both of which I like. They say they have 50 discrete investment strategies, including 16 that are perpetual vehicles which are taking half of all inflows. Management says they are just at the beginning of the shift to more permanent products (which now make up about a quarter of assets under management). It seems Blackstone has very talented people and a strong culture. Their balance sheet is strong, but not as strong as the other big firms. Despite this, they have one of the few A+ credit ratings among asset managers. They brag about being capital light, which is likely a shot at the other three big firms who all carry more cash and investments relative to their size. This situation is likely to continue considering Blackstone pays out almost all its income via dividends, while the other three keep much of their income to invest in growing out and diversifying their platforms. Blackstone agrees with Apollo that there is a shift in the insurance world from public bonds to private credit, but Blackstone feels they are already a top provider of private credit and says, unlike Apollo, they will not take on large-scale liabilities (such as fixed annuities) to do spread investing. Instead, Blackstone will remain a third-party manager, which they feel is more capital light. Blackstone tends to focus on below-investment grade credit, whereas Apollo (through Athene) focuses on investment grade credit. Inflows at Blackstone have been high, but management says they would happily take even more capital because they see so much opportunity. They argue they are still small in the world of global equities.

I like Blackstone, but I worry their large size will make it harder for them to maintain strong investment results.

Blackstone says they position their private equity investments in areas of growth themes such as renewables, the internet, and housing, and in real estate they invest heavily in logistics, rental housing, and life sciences. I am skeptical about investing in hot/popular areas like these, as valuations are often high, and there is often lots of competition. However, to the extent Blackstone is just holding, assembling, or consolidating these assets temporarily in preparation for selling them on to others, they might benefit from fads. But I would be wary if they are loading up their perpetual vehicles with trendy expensive assets. Another point that makes me wary – Blackstone talks about accelerating deployment in their big private equity and real estate funds so they can fundraise and launch new funds sooner. KKR has said this approach is risky, especially considering valuations are high right now. KKR notes this strategy can lead to vintage risk, which can lead to poor returns for a big fund if this turns out to be a cyclical top. KKR reduces this risk by deploying cash steadily over time. Blackstone’s strategy is somewhat concerning considering their head of private equity recently said technology and green energy are areas to watch when asked if he sees any valuation bubbles.


Carlyle is the smallest company of the big four. As mentioned, they are reasonably large in global private equity, but they have been much slower to diversify into other areas. They are already dominant in collateralized loan obligations (CLO’s), but they are only now building out the rest of their credit business, much of it focused on investment grade credit. Their combined credit businesses represent only about 20% of assets under management. Carlyle now has a capital markets business, but it is small, and they were late to build this out relative to competitors. The costs of building these newer areas have depressed Carlyle’s profit margins. Their fee-related earnings margins are in the low 30%’s, and their target is to get to 40% in four years. The other big firms already earn margins of 50%+. Several of the firms have put out medium term growth targets, and Carlyle’s targets were probably the least aggressive. Management has already admitted they will beat their targets well in advance of the original four-year timeline.

For all these reasons, I believe many investors see Carlyle as a laggard, and this is likely why it has recently traded at the cheapest valuation of the four big firms.

Like the other big firms, Carlyle sees high net worth retail investors as a growth area, however they access this market through funds of funds, whereas other firms offer private loan funds, and private real estate investment trusts. And like the other big firms, Carlyle also sees insurance as a growth avenue. They bought a reinsurance company called Fortitude that seeks to manage legacy blocks of insurance business from other insurers. Like Blackstone, Carlyle has an investment solutions business which facilitates secondary fund transactions, fund of funds, and co-investment strategies.

As shown previously, Carlyle has a very strong balance sheet. Since they are heavily weighted to private equity, their accrued unrealized performance fees as a percent of market capitalization are the highest of the big four firms. Carlyle used to pay out most of their income in dividends like Blackstone, but now they have a low payout ratio and retain much of their income to grow their platforms, including through acquisitions and seeding new funds.


KKR has a very long history as a leader in traditional private equity. The founders are still involved in the business today, although they are stepping back somewhat. KKR feels private equity is still a growth business. This is in direct contrast to the CEO at Apollo who recently said traditional private equity is not a growth business, and that it is difficult to scale. KKR feels they are stealing market share within private equity. KKR earns the highest margins of the big four public firms. They shoot for fee-related earnings margins of 60-65%, almost twice as high as Carlyle is currently earning. KKR has the lowest dividend payout ratio of the four big firms. They have a reputation for plowing income into their own funds and holding these as investments on their balance sheet. Their big balance sheet also supports their capital markets business. For instance, it helps them underwrite equity issuances and they can temporarily hold assets while trying to syndicate them. KKR is not as far along in the move to perpetual capital as Apollo, however they are ahead of Blackstone and Carlyle. Like Apollo, they have an insurance platform (Global Atlantic), and they manage significant amounts for third party insurers.

Are any of the big firms attractive today? Do we own any today?

We do not own any of these four companies today, however I think all four are ownable if you get a good price. Considering everything I have discussed above, including their growth, valuations, and balance sheets, I could justify buying Carlyle, Apollo, or KKR at today’s prices. KKR is cheaper than it looks given their huge investments balance. Despite its qualities, Blackstone seems too expensive.

So why don’t we own any? As I have outlined, there are many factors that make me hesitant and wary. That’s life in the wonderful world of investing! To compensate for these factors, I would want a low entry price. I believe it is possible we could get this opportunity.

Over the last six years, there has been a few different occasions when all four stocks were down by more than a third. As the industry matures, the selloffs during successive downturns will likely be less severe. However, I believe the shares are still prone to confidence shocks, and when sentiment is jittery or negative in periods of stress and fear I think we could see attractive opportunities present themselves. In the meantime, I think there are other simpler and more attractively priced investments available.

Please contact us if you would like to learn more about our current investments. We would be happy to discuss with you how we decide which companies make it into our portfolios. We are always eager to discuss our investment philosophy and how we feel it can help build wealth over time.

Until next time!



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