Given a choice, would you put your money in a Europe-focused buyout fund right now? OK, we understand your doubts about Greece. Even the most committed European fund manager might admit, at least in private, that you would be daft to invest in Greece at this stage, while there's a real possibility of its being ejected from the euro zone. But there are plenty of opportunities for investment elsewhere in the currency union. And there are more European countries outside the zone than there are inside it, some of them major markets like the U.K. or Sweden. Estonia's making a comeback. Poland's been on a roll. Hey, what's not to like?
Investing in European private equity is not as crazy as it sounds. We're not even talking about distressed funds here. The investor's mantra is supposed to be "buy cheap, sell high." Acquire an undervalued company, align your interests with those of the management, and watch the company and its pre-debt earnings grow. There are plenty of European general partners out there on the fundraising trail, and they've got a good story to tell about how they can make good returns on your risk capital.
Some serious people believe there's money to be made even in Italy or Spain. The recent European Private Equity and Venture Capital Association symposium in Barcelona ran a panel entitled "Southern Europe in Focus -- Why This Is Exactly the Right Time to Invest."
Panelists thought Spain had some excellent companies and could be a gateway for investment from Latin America. Compressed multiples and the opportunity to buy a company at perhaps a third of the price it might have cost to build the business in the first place must surely be attractive to private equity investment.
Luisa Alemany, associate professor at Spain's Escuela Superior de Administración y Dirección de Empresas, pointed out just how conscientiously Spain had embarked on the economic reforms needed to pull itself out of the mire. True, the country's banking crisis had drowned out that positive message. But in her view, the government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had done even more than Italy's Mario Monti -- who, several speakers agreed, had pulled back from the brink of labor reform under political pressure.
Yet the panel believed Italy, too, was a better bet than it might look to outsiders. Claudio Sposito of Milan private equity house Clessidra SGR SpA said Italy was "the heaven of middle-market companies," many of which were working under extreme stress and offered great opportunities for private equity investment. And Andrea C. Bonomi of rival Italian firm Investindustrial Advisors Ltd. offered an informal bet.
"We'll see if people make more money investing in Italy or China," he said. "I'm putting my money on Italy."
Chinese funds were also recruited to the cause. In another panel, André Loesekrug-Pietri of A Capital's China Outbound Fund and Raymond Yang of WestSummit Capital Management, a global technology fund whose sole investor is Chinese sovereign wealth fund China Investment Corp., argued that Chinese investment in Europe was set to grow. A Capital's Dragon Index of Chinese outbound investment showed that Europe was the No. 1 destination for Chinese overseas direct investment in the first quarter of 2012, in sectors other than resources and energy. Loesekrug-Pietri said the finding confirmed Europe's position "as a key strategic investment ground for Chinese investors," adding that Chinese investment in Europe was intended to gain a competitive advantage over rivals from China itself. Buyers were therefore often content to go ahead despite their concerns about the climate in Europe.
Meanwhile, Yang said interest was so great that local and regional governments in China had approached his firm about opening dedicated dollar-denominated funds for investment in Europe.
Yet both men were cautious, warning that Chinese buyers were often put off by European media stories portraying Chinese investors as predators and that equally damaging prejudices applied in China. Loesekrug-Pietri told how one strategic investor had recently pulled out of a deal in the solid Scandinavian market, thinking all of Europe was as "dangerous" as Greece.
Europe, in short, has an image problem. Even out of the currency union, Britain shares that burden.
You can certainly make the argument that while gross domestic product figures might show a whole country in recession, a private equity investor might focus on a company with growth in double figures. And you don't have to agree with the moderator of the Southern Europe debate, who baited the panel by calling their claims a "fairy tale." If you're sitting in Milan, Madrid or for that matter in Stockholm, the bright spots in the market may be obvious, and the differences between countries may be clear.
But Europe also wants investment from New York, Shanghai or São Paulo, Brazil. It wants limited partners and funds-of-funds with confidence in their London- or Milan-based managers, and a willingness to risk a bet on the future of the euro. With the ratings agencies and often Europe's own governments apparently on a mission to show the region in the worst possible light, such investors may be very hard to find.