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How to build a diversified portfolio

Including private equity in a portfolio can have powerful benefits, which we covered in detail in section Why invest in private equity?. Seasoned investors will be familiar with the level of thought and analysis that goes into selecting which new assets enter a portfolio, then rebalancing periodically to ensure that it remains on the right track.

Here, we cover the process of taking stock of your portfolio and what it needs and selecting which fund style might suit these needs. Then, we look at how you might take a top-down approach to choosing a strategy and a bottom-up approach to manager selection, before finishing with key elements of monitoring and rebalancing.

Much of this will be familiar to experienced investors, but there are critical differences between how private equity and traditional assets behave in a portfolio, so it’s worth going through systematically. For simplicity, we will assume that you are managing your own portfolio and purchasing either a primary or secondary investment in a fund managed by a General Partner. 

Identify your portfolio strategy and current needs

Before you include a new asset in your portfolio, it’s necessary to have a clear picture of what overall strategy you’re aiming for and what your immediate objectives are.

Define your overall portfolio strategy

  • Risk-return appetite. What is your overall target return?
  • How much risk are you willing to accept to maximise that return?
  • Cash flow. What are your cash flow needs?
  • Liquidity. What is the range within which you are comfortable having capital returned?
  • Other constraints. Do you have tax issues with private investments?
  • Are there legal constraints limiting exposure to certain strategies?

Take stock of your existing portfolio

With your overall strategy and needs in mind, consider your portfolio as it is now compared to how you want it to be. This guides your asset selection going forward - all with the goal of optimising diversification to meet your strategy.

  • Is your portfolio overweight in a sector or region? If you are too heavy on technology or the US, then a shock to that market could have negative effects overall.
  • Is your portfolio underweight in particular sectors or regions? If so, it is worth considering whether they have a positive effect on returns without increasing overall risk.
  • Is there an asset type that could decrease overall risk? By including an asset that is negatively correlated to your portfolio, it can reduce overall risk while stabilising returns. 
  • How diversified are other characteristics? If - for example - you have invested only in funds of the same vintage, then rebalancing is likely to be necessary.

Use the answers to these questions to define your immediate objectives

Clearly lay out your objectives for this new iteration of your portfolio. You should return to this step periodically to rebalance your portfolio and ensure that you don’t lose track.

Consider your private equity allocation

Now that you have a set of objectives for your overall portfolio, you can use these to define your percentage allocations to individual asset classes based on their risk/return profiles. The chart below shows recent data on the allocation of US College Endowment funds to different asset classes - you can see that the larger the fund, the higher the allocation to private equity.

Source: 2021 Nacubo-Tiaa Study of Endowments

As an individual investor, the considerations are different to those of an endowment fund which seeks to retain capital over a rolling period - the fund never expects to “close”. To get a better idea, we can look to research from Vanguard that maps out the expected return and risk (volatility) results from different allocations¹. This example uses the traditional 70% Equity / 30%

Bond portfolio as a starting point and assumes that instant, continuous rebalancing is not possible due to the illiquid nature of private equity.

With an illiquidity-constrained rebalancing assumption.Notes: PE refers to private equity. Expected return and expected volatility are median values from a distribution of 10,000 simulations. Portfolios have been optimized over a ten-year investment horizon. Passive risk aversion in VAAM was set to a level consistent with a 70/30 policy, fully liquid portfolio. The following constraints apply:non-U.S. bonds, up to 50% of total (noncredit) bonds; total credit bonds, up to 50% of total fixed income (bonds and credit bonds); intermediate-term U.S. credit bonds,up to 60% of total credit bonds; short-term U.S. credit bonds, up to 60% of total credit bonds. For these case studies, we assume that the only sub-asset class in theportfolio with active investments is private equity. For the portfolios reported in Figure 10b, a 15% NAV discount rate was assumed on the private equity wealth at theend of the ten-year investment horizon. The inner ring shows the total portfolio allocation to each asset category. The outer ring shows the portion allocated to privateequity out of the total allocation to global equities. The optimized weights for intermediate-term U.S. credit bonds, short-term U.S. credit bonds, and international bonds(hedged) have been aggregated in the “fixed income” class.Source: Vanguard calculations, using asset-return projections from the VCMM as of December 31, 2019, in USD.

This is purely illustrative, to give an idea of how including private equity can affect portfolio return and risk: it does not represent a recommended asset allocation. There is no “correct” allocation profile, but it is essential to understand how the balance of assets affects both portfolio return and risk overall - to make sure you are always in line with your overall strategy.

Select a private equity strategy (top-down)

Taking the objectives you defined, you can look at the available options and shortlist particular strategies based on how they fit your risk/return profile and cash flow, liquidity or diversification needs. This is taking a top-down approach first, looking at fund style, focus and vintage to narrow down your field of view before going into detail on selecting the right manager.

Note: If you prefer, you can select a series of managers first (bottom-up), then select the right strategy from this list (top-down) after. That said, since there are so many private equity funds available, carrying out manager due diligence on every available fund before narrowing down is unlikely to be a feasible option. The suggested order is likely to make the process smoother.

Style (Growth/Value/Income)

In public market investing, strategies are often split into three styles: Growth, Value and Income. Now that you know your objectives, it can be helpful to split your options into these three buckets to narrow down your strategy. 

Please note that the examples below are by no means the only options available and they do not represent recommendations to invest. They are simply intended to illustrate how you might translate your objectives into a particular sub-sector. See Explore strategies for more on each sub-sector.

  • Growth. Venture capital or growth equity funds seek out rapid growth, targeting specific sectors (e.g. technology) or particular regions. This strategy generally involves taking on a more diversified portfolio of minority stakes.
  • Value. Buyout funds are focused on driving value creation for more mature, developed companies. They usually take an active majority role in a smaller portfolio of companies.
  • Income. Also known as “yield”, these strategies have a lower risk appetite and either offer regular, fixed cash flows (e.g. private credit) or faster distributions due to the nature of the asset class (e.g. secondaries).

Focus (sector/region)

Most funds will clearly focus on an industry or sector, with particular emphasis on sub-sectors. They will also operate in a particular region - even the majority of funds with a global remit will concentrate on a few regions. Consider your strategy to select a sector/region focus, looking for:

Sectors that might:

  • Offer diversification benefits within your portfolio
  • Benefit from long-term themes you have identified

Regions that might:

  • Offer diversification benefits within your portfolio
  • Benefit from ongoing macroeconomic trends?

Vintage year

There are a few elements at play here that make it important to diversify private equity investments across vintages:

Smoothing market cycles. Private equity has historically outperformed public equity across full market cycles (see Why invest in private equity?), but returns tend to vary depending on the phase of the business cycle. For example, if a fund starts investing in a downturn, it is likely to have a larger selection of distressed, undervalued assets to choose from, then be able to exit at a point when the market is peaking. The opposite is true for a fund investing at a market peak: assets are likely to be expensive and run the risk of being undervalued when brought to public markets at exit.

Since the market timing is unpredictable, diversifying across vintages helps to smooth out this cyclical risk to create a return profile that represents the asset class as a whole.

Creating a self-funding portfolio. We covered the structure of private equity returns in How Does Private Equity Work?, along with why a flatter J-Curve is generally better for smoothing out an investor’s cash flow. When it comes to building a portfolio, investors can use this dynamic to their favour. 

By diversifying across vintages, the distributions from an earlier vintage can be reinvested as commitments for a later vintage - creating a self-funding portfolio that increases in value
over time.

Select a manager (bottom-up)

Once you have a strategy in your sights, the final step before investing is to select the best manager - and fund - within that strategy that fits your portfolio. It is important to be careful in selecting a manager, since the dispersion of returns between managers can be broad:

Dispersion of private equity funds’ outperformance over the MSCI World Index per vintage year².

Footnote on chart: Source: BlackRock Private Equity Partners, July 2021. The figures shown relate to past performance. Past performance is not a reliable indicator of current or future results. Dispersion of outperformance over the MSCI World Index per vintage year and in aggregate as of December 31st 2020 – all in USD. Private Equity performance data sourced from Burgiss covers vintages 2002-2018, 2,209 funds, and USD 2,399 billion in market capitalisation. Private equity strategies include: Buyout, VC (Late), VC (Generalist), and Expansion Capital. All returns are net of management and performance fees.

As we covered in section How does private equity work?, the launch of any private equity fund comes with a series of materials encompassing everything a potential Limited Partner needs to know. Carrying out manager due diligence involves - at the least - looking at the Private Placement Memorandum (PPM) and marketing presentations for each fund.

Here are some key elements to look out for when selecting a manager:

  1. Manager strategy. Different managers will take a range of approaches, even if they are targeting the same sector and style, so it is important to understand how they will operate. Managers refine their strategy between funds, so look for explanations of how a particular fund varies from the last - and how they seek to benefit from forward-looking macroeconomic developments or industry trends.

Bear in mind that a fund will not even begin to see distributions until the harvesting period, so strategies that target a clear market opportunity based on long-term, secular trends that the manager has experience with are likely to provide more solid results.

  1. Track record. While past performance is not indicative of future results, it can be an indicator of a solid - or unreliable - investment team. Besides the cumulative data on how the manager and individual funds have performed over time, fund materials will break down the track record into specifics on sector, region, deal sizes and more. This will allow you to best align a potential manager’s strategy with your diversification objectives.

A manager’s track record can only say so much in isolation: a fund may have performed well for any number of reasons, especially in favourable market conditions. This makes it essential to benchmark a manager’s performance against comparable funds of the same vintage as well as the public market equivalent.

  1. Value creation. The goal of any fund is to increase the value of portfolio companies during ownership so the way that a fund goes about this increase is incredibly important (see the section on Value Creation in How does private equity work? for more). In general, a manager that is able to consistently drive value through Revenue/EBITDA growth is held in high esteem.

Besides top-line growth, creating value through multiple expansion is a solid strategy, so if a manager has a good track record of selling at high exit multiples compared to entry multiples, it can be a sign of an experienced entry and exit strategy. The final main strategy is financial engineering (working with leverage or capital structure), which is widely considered to be riskier, as it magnifies both gains and losses.

    4.  Deal sourcing and diligence. Before value creation can begin, performance hangs on a manager's ability to source opportunities within their predefined area of focus. Managers vary in their deal sourcing methodology, from relying on proprietary networks to operating top-down methodologies that start with themes, analyse all of the potential companies, then narrow in on potential targets. A structured approach is critical, allowing a manager to continuously bring in excellent opportunities and offer repeatable success. 

     5. Investment team. A manager is - like any company - only as strong as its talent. Fund materials offer plenty of detail on the experience, past performance and expertise areas of each member of the investment team, along with which team members will be dedicated to the running of the fund.

     6. Unrealised portfolio / reinvestment. Almost all managers will begin raising a fund while a previous vintage in the same strategy is still operating. In the case of larger managers, there can be up to three or four funds “alive” at the same time. The unrealised nature of these portfolios can disguise potential negative performance, so it is worth looking into the individual companies that a fund still holds to get a better picture.

On the other hand, many managers allocate a portion of a fund to re-invest in existing portfolio companies i.e. unrealised assets from funds of earlier vintages that the manager does not deem ready for exit. When this strategy is carried out effectively, it can be an excellent source of proprietary deals, doubling down on a manager’s conviction to deliver attractive returns.

     7. Fees and carried interest. The fee structure of a fund is not only critical from the Limited Partner perspective - since it defines the difference between Net and Gross returns - it also drives the performance and dedication of the investment team (see How does private equity work? for more).

For example, a fund that distributes carried interest on an aggregate fund basis (“European Waterfall”) will benefit Limited Partners with earlier distributions, while a deal-by-deal distribution structure (“American Waterfall”) delivers later distributions but might provide greater motivation for the investment team.

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Ongoing monitoring and rebalancing

A portfolio represents a selection of assets that are changing constantly, whether it be the value of companies increasing as they - and fund managers - create value, or due to changing market conditions. This means that a healthy portfolio is dynamic in nature, monitored periodically and rebalanced wherever necessary to ensure that it fulfils the goals you set out to achieve.

Please note that dynamic does not mean “constantly changing”. When considering whether to make changes to a portfolio, the decision should be made carefully and only when necessary - not in a knee-jerk reaction to every update from the General Partner or change in the market.

Capital call monitoring

A unique element of a private equity investment is that an investor can’t just buy a stake and see what happens. Becoming a Limited Partner means committing to delivering capital when the General Partner makes the call - usually within 7-10 days. So it is important to keep track of when those capital calls are likely to come and ensure that you have appropriate amounts of cash - or liquid assets - in your portfolio to honour them.

Market monitoring

Any portfolio will be affected by changes in the market, economic conditions and political decisions - whether short term shocks or policy changes with long term effects. Keeping track of the landscape in which your investments are operating is essential.

A quality manager will be closely monitoring market conditions and altering the strategy appropriately, but bear in mind that this may cause the fund to move in a direction that goes against your objectives. For example, if you included that particular fund in your portfolio for sector or regional diversification purposes, a market shock may cause the fund to become overweight in a sector or region you were trying to reduce.

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Key metrics

- Entry Multiple. This is a simple calculation of a company’s purchase value compared to earnings at the time: enterprise value (EV) divided by Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation (EBITDA). A General Partner will seek to negotiate a low entry multiple, in the hope of increasing this ratio as much as possible during ownership.

- Exit Multiple. Calculated at the time of exit in the same way as Entry Multiple (EV divided by EBITDA), a General Partner will seek to create the highest possible Exit Multiple during ownership. The two metrics are especially insightful when compared to one another, illustrating how much the fund has (or hasn’t) increased value during ownership.

- IRR (“Internal Rate of Return”). IRR is a return measure of both speed and size by which an investment offers a return, so it takes into account the time value of money. It is usually calculated by dividing the size and timing of a fund’s cash flows (in the form of capital calls and distributions) by the net asset value. Gross IRR is often used to show performance at the fund or company level. There is no standard method for how to build fees, carry or expenses into a Net IRR calculation, so this varies for each fund manager.

- MOIC (“Multiple on Invested Capital”). MOIC is a measure of raw investment performance, measured by dividing the total value of a fund (or investment) by the total invested capital. Since it does not take time into account, it is most useful combined with a measure such as IRR. For example, one investment with a MOIC of 5.0x over a period of one years has a far better IRR than one with the same MOIC over ten years. MOIC is often shown as both Gross and Net figures - before and after fees.

- TVPI (“Total Value to Paid-In”). Also known as “Investment Multiple”, this is a way of measuring the fund’s performance as a multiple of cost to Limited Partners. It is calculated by summing the cumulative distributions of the fund and residual value and dividing by the paid-in capital. Like MOIC, it does not take into account the time value of money. But - since it is based on the cost to Limited Partners, not to the fund - TVPI almost always refers to “Net TVPI”, meaning it is calculated after management fees.

- Loss Ratio. Loss Ratio measures how much of a manager’s investments - or a particular fund’s investments - that were realised at a loss. It is a simple way of illustrating a manager’s track record at downside protection, reflecting their ability at investment selection and exit management for underperforming investments. Loss ratio is calculated by dividing the percentage of capital realised below cost (minus any recovered proceeds) by the total invested capital.

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Performance monitoring

While private equity investment is generally considered to be a long game, it is still essential to keep track of performance during the life of a fund. Monitoring the value and performance of a private market asset is a lot more difficult than public assets (see sidebar below, but the principle is much the same, looking at the following:

Value. As asset values change, the balance of the portfolio can shift - often dramatically - over time. For example, if a 20% allocation to private equity performs very well and increases in value, while 40% in public equity decreases in value due to a downturn, this could shift the dollar value of your portfolio to 25% in private equity and 35% public equity. This drastically changes the balance of overall return and risk in your portfolio.

Returns. Monitoring returns as a fund progresses can be misleading, since key metrics (see sidebar above) will fluctuate over time, even if the final return is attractive. With that in mind, it is worth comparing returns to comparable funds of the same vintage, as well as expected return at this point in the fund’s lifecycle.

Risk. Just as returns on an asset and portfolio level will fluctuate, so will risk. This comes as a result of economic or market conditions, meaning that it is important to continuously assess whether the risk profile of a fund still fits with your portfolio goals.

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Why can’t you use traditional models for private equity valuation and allocation?

Traditional asset valuation and allocation models are based on Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT), which takes into account certain characteristics of the portfolio and the investor:

  • Expected return of each asset
  • Volatility of each asset
  • Pairwise correlations of each asset against every other asset
  • Risk tolerance of the investor

We have covered in detail how public and private assets behave differently in previous sections. The characteristics that we have covered in previous sections combine to make traditional pricing models ineffective when it comes to private equity:

  1. Smoothed valuations. Unlike public equity investors, Limited Partners cannot access real-time data on the value of investments in a fund during its lifetime. They rely on periodic updates from the General Partner which are smoothed by nature and can lead to investors incorrectly valuing their portfolio and underestimating volatility. 
  2. Private vs public equity pricing. Private equity investments cannot be liquidated immediately for their fair value. Since this is how public assets are priced on an open market (i.e. fair market value), liquid asset prices and private equity asset value are not directly comparable.
  3. Cash flow uncertainty. While managers generally try to predict the distribution schedule of a fund in advance, the true schedule or magnitude of cash flows are unpredictable. This means that the present value of a fund as a function of its future cash flows is almost impossible to calculate.
  4. Rebalancing friction. The illiquid nature of private equity investments mean that rebalancing is rarely immediate - unless a secondary market is available. To compensate for the illiquidity, a liquidity premium must be taken into account when valuing the asset, which will be constantly changing as distributions are closer.

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Rebalancing

Periodically - as the output of ongoing, regular monitoring - you should rebalance your portfolio to ensure that it remains within the return and risk margins you are comfortable with. There is no “best” frequency, but you might choose:

  • Allocation-based. When value changes in your portfolio cause the allocation to shift beyond a specific percentage. For example, rebalancing if an asset drifts by >5%.
  • Time-based. Once or twice per year, or in line with tax schedules.
  • Time- & allocation- based. A combination of the above: rebalancing on a set date, but only if asset allocation has shifted by a set amount.

Replacing a closing fund

Up to this point, we have looked at the life of a fund as a self-contained lifetime, with a beginning and an end. But - for most investors - a portfolio will be ongoing, so planning for the end of a fund’s life is an essential part of investing in private equity.

Years after the original fund stakes were purchased and the investor became a Limited Partner, it is likely that the goals and objectives of the portfolio have changed. It could be the case that by this point, the portfolio contains a series of other private equity stakes of varying vintages, which means that replacing the closing fund is a matter of course. But - as always - it is an excellent time to take stock of the portfolio and make sure it is on track to fulfil key objectives.

Important Information: Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Any historical returns, expected returns, or probability projections are not guaranteed and may not reflect actual future performance. Your capital is at risk. Please see https://www.moonfare.com/disclaimers

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