Private equity returns down 30 percent -- and that's the good news

For the past year, silver linings have been in short supply. Even as financial markets claw their way back up, the wealth lost has been neither forgotten nor completely recovered. In the private equity sector, the good news is that, frankly, the situation could have been worse. Though returns plunged, the asset class still outperformed the public equity markets.

A new analysis from alternative investment research firm Preqin puts the private equity industry's return at -30 percent for the 12 months ending March 31, 2009, a period that encompasses the bulk of the lows without the benefit of the upswing that followed. For the same year-long period, the S&P 500's return was -38.1 percent, with the MSCI Europe's at -49.9 percent and the MSCI Emerging Markets' return at -47.1 percent.

Private equity performance through the end of March was "poor for most [private equity] fund types, with portfolio valuations continuing to drop as fund managers remain unable to exit any of their previous investments," according to Etienne Paresys, Preqin's Head of Research. Real estate private equity funds were worst, with an internal rate of return of -40.5 percent, followed by buyout funds (-33.8 percent), funds of funds (-20 percent) and venture capital funds (-17.1 percent).

Though a sufficient data set for the second quarter is not yet available, Preqin believes the results will track with the public markets. "Returns are stabilizing," Paresys says, "and it is likely that future quarters will show a modest increase in net asset value after a sustained period of decline."

The worst seems to be over for the private equity sector, but a 30 percent decline leaves a long road to recovery. Preqin cites the long-term performance of the asset class as a sign of health -- it has beaten the S&P 500 by 19.1 percent over a three-year period and 25.4 percent over five. But this does little to take the sting out of recent losses. When investors look at the balances in their accounts, they're more likely to zero in on what they have lost, rather than the fact that they did better than others.

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