Evaluating Private Equity Performance: PME vs. Direct Alpha
In a recent paper titled “Benchmarking Private Equity: The Direct Alpha Method,” authors Oleg Gredil, Barry E. Griffiths, and Rüdiger Stucke propose a new technique called “direct alpha” to overcome key issues with some typically used private equity benchmarking methodologies.
The standard approach to evaluating an investment’s performance is to compare it with the performance of a related reference index. Generally, an investment’s return is thought to comprise two components: an alpha and a beta. Beta represents the return obtainable from passive benchmark investing, whereas alpha is the return attributed to nonmarket sources.
Alpha is considered to represent the manager’s skill and is used as a key input for making asset allocation and investment decisions.
The statistical method to calculate alpha is to use standard regression techniques from the modern portfolio theory toolkit. However, these techniques work well (at least from a statistical perspective) only for those instruments that are publicly traded and are highly liquid. This is a major problem for private equity (PE) investments as they are not only “private” and illiquid but also exhibit serious smoothing issues because of subjective appraisals and valuation lags.
In recent years, however, a number of heuristic (not rigorous mathematically, more of an empirical approach) methodologies have been employed to estimate the alpha of PE investments. These methodologies, commonly known as public market equivalent (PME), are heuristic in nature as they try to deconstruct alpha indirectly by comparing it with the return of a related public market benchmark.
Basically, these methods try to evaluate the value of a private equity investment by assessing its opportunity cost vis-à-vis to investing in other available vehicles.
The common basis of PME methodologies is to calculate an alternate internal rate of return (IRR) by applying the investment cash flows of the private equity investment to a reference benchmark. Alpha is then heuristically determined as the difference of the actual private equity IRR and the alternate PME IRR. Commonly used PME approaches are:
- PME+, and
The Long–Nickels index comparison method (ICM/PME), proposed in 1996, is considered to be the first of the PME approaches. In this approach, every capital contribution and distribution of the private equity investment is matched by an equal and timely investment and sale of the reference benchmark, respectively. This results in an identical set of contributions and distributions but a different residual net asset value (NAV). The resulting PME IRR provides a basis for appraisal against the investment’s actual IRR.
Although the ICM/PME is easy to understand, one key issue is that it does not liquidate as the private equity investment does. A strong outperformance or underperformance results in the reference portfolio carrying a large long or short position in later years. Also, as the investment approaches maturity, large swings in the benchmark may have no effect on the unrealized investments, while it has a big effect on the residual value of the reference portfolio.
The PME+ method, introduced by Christophe Rouvinez and Capital Dynamics, tries to rectify the previous issues by applying a fixed scaling factor to distributions to arrive at the same residual value. One major drawback of this method is the effect of the fixed scaling factor on the calculated IRR, as IRR is very sensitive to early distributions. A down-scaling or up-scaling of distributions due to outperformance or underperformance has an inflating effect on the calculated IRR. Also, PME+ is not an investable methodology and thus cannot be replicated.
The mPME method, developed by Cambridge Associates, is similar to the PME+ technique but uses a time-varying scaling factor based on interim private equity NAVs instead of a fixed one. This, however, does not remedy the effect of scaling on the calculated IRR as noted previously. In fact, rescaling distributions based on interim private equity NAVs introduces additional biases in case of any pricing issues with the interim NAV calculations.
The Direct Alpha Method
The main attraction of the direct alpha method is that it actually formalizes the calculation of the exact alpha to a chosen reference benchmark, avoiding most of the issues of the heuristic methodologies discussed above.
In this method, all private equity cash flows are compounded by the returns of the reference benchmark to the same single point in time, which when combined with the final NAV, forms a series of future values of net cash flows. By doing this, the impact of any changes in the reference benchmark on the actual private equity cash flows is effectively neutralized. Thus, the resulting net cash flows are not affected by any changes in the reference index but reflect only the sole private equity returns relative to the index returns.
The direct alpha method is closely related to another PME measure introduced by Steven N. Kaplan and Antoinette Schoar, referred to as KS-PME, which seeks to measure the wealth multiple effect of investing in the private equity investment versus the reference benchmark. KS-PME above (below) a level of one indicates that the private equity investment generated higher (lower) returns relative to the reference benchmark. Direct alpha can be thought of as annualizing the KS-PME and is zero whenever the KS-PME is one.
Empirical analysis of the different methods shows that direct alpha compares favorably versus the other heuristic methods, which have several cases that result in significant errors.
ICM/PME Approach (Numerical Examples from the Study)
The Direct Alpha Approach
Conclusion: PME or Direct Alpha? A Question of Perspective
After this discussion, is it straightforward enough to conclude that direct alpha is better than and preferable to PME? Based on my experience, it seems that direct alpha is more robust than PME analysis. IRR computation using PME is sometimes very sensitive to even relatively minor changes in cash flows or index values. Also, direct alpha is the closest thing we have in terms of applying modern portfolio theory to private equity.
Finally, one very important question to consider is, Does the reference benchmark accurately represent the opportunity cost of the fund investment? This is to ensure that any analysis is grounded in reality and does not end up just becoming a futile quantitative exercise.
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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.
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