Global private equity firms have eagerly been eyeing investment opportunities in Southeast Asia for years, and for good reason. Spanning 10 nations from Myanmar to the Philippines, Southeast Asia's aggregate gross domestic product topped $2 trillion in 2011. The region is home to 600 million increasingly affluent consumers, and growth in its six largest economies is forecast to accelerate by between 4.5% and 6.7% annually through 2015.
Interest in Southeast Asia has risen even higher since the global financial crisis. Enjoying relatively stable prices and sizable foreign exchange reserves, the region's economies have been resilient to the economic woes that have plagued the developed markets. They offer attractive opportunities for PE investors that have concentrated on China and India -- and driven up acquisition values in both of these markets -- to diversify their holdings. Southeast Asia's stock indexes have outpaced gains in China and India since late 2009.
But PE in Southeast Asia is still awaiting the long-anticipated breakthrough that industry analysts have been looking for. At $5.3 billion, dealmaking was flat in 2011. Just 37 deals were done, and exit volumes totaled $4.2 billion, 30% below 2010 levels.
Results from a survey Bain & Co. conducted with the Singapore Venture Capital & Private Equity Association, however, show clear signs that 2012 could be the start of a new era. Respondents look for deal activity to increase substantially, especially in the consumer, healthcare and energy sectors. The financial foundations for PE expansion look solid. Debt issuance is at record levels, M&A activity is buoyant, and Singapore's pipeline of initial public offerings is full.
Fundraising is robust. Last year, PE funds focused exclusively on Southeast Asia attracted $1.6 billion in new capital. PE funds and limited partners rank Indonesia and Vietnam highest on their list of attractive investment destinations in the region. Three funds focusing exclusively on Indonesia investments and six smaller ones targeting Vietnam are looking to line up more than $2.5 billion. Altogether, 22 funds are currently on the road, aiming to raise an aggregate $6.4 billion. This is in addition to the capital that global and pan-Asian funds will deploy into the region.
The expected continued rise of regional funds -- and country-focused funds, in particular -- speaks to the growing sophistication of PE's competitive landscape. About 70% of survey respondents said that they saw competition from global PE firms over the past two to three years, and more than 60% saw an uptick in competition from corporate buyers looking to make strategic deals during the same time period. With more regional and country-specific funds continuing to join the bidding fray, two-thirds of survey respondents cited increased competition as a major constraint to closing good deals going forward.
What will it take to succeed? Our survey respondents identified three key areas where they need to raise their game to ensure that the deals they complete will end up as winners.
First, they are redoubling their efforts to identify and groom strong management teams. For creating value post-acquisition, survey respondents overwhelmingly said that the strength of the management team is the most important quality to look for when appraising a potential deal.
Second, they are devoting more resources to flesh out a concrete value-creation plan. The ability to spot a few key priorities and set a timeline for achieving them as soon as the deal is closed ranked second among survey participants.
Finally, they are forging ties that give them proprietary access to attractive deals. The importance of cultivating relationships with a network of advisers, industry insiders and locally connected partners was cited by 43% of respondents. They believe these relationships enable their funds to be the first to size up the most promising target investments that are in line with their deal theses.
Southeast Asia's vibrant potential is a powerful magnet for PE funds. But as our survey results reveal, these funds will need to scramble to land good deals and bear down to create sustainable value in portfolio companies.
Suvir Varma is a partner with Bain & Co., based in Singapore, where he leads the firm's Asia-Pacific private equity practice. Bain partner Hugh MacArthur heads the firm's global private equity practice from Boston.