Signs of life in Japanese private equity

July 7, 2009

The conventional wisdom is that private equity is comatose in Japan, at best, with some major firms leaving Tokyo, deal numbers sliding and even old Japan hands like Advantage Partners seen as looking to exit mature investments.

Yet Richard Folsom, Representative Partner of Advantage, tells a very different story with deals in the pipeline, finance on tap and some ripe fruit about to be picked — even if his firm has yet to announce a new investment deal this year.

Private equity in Japan is just over 10 years old, after a rule change in 1997, and makes up about 3-4 percent of merger deals, by Folsom’s math.

That may seem low, but he says the private equity business in Germany and the United States was similarly small at the same stage of their development — suggesting fund buyouts might leap to 10 or 20 percent of deals over the next five or ten years as Japan follows the path set by others.

But he is not just talking theoretically. After the financial crisis made deals hard to value, he sees increasing pressure for hard-hit companies to sell non-core assets as competition increases pressure on them to raise cash to invest in their core businesses.

If they are not getting it from earnings and not getting it from the credit markets, that leaves them looking at divestments, he told the Reuters Japan Investment Summit. 

By his math, such deals as larger companies sell non-core units make up a third to a half of fund buyouts in Japan, but he sees potential growth in other areas too.

One of those goes directly to a big problem in Japan — a rapidly ageing population.

“There are a lot of founder-owned businesses that were founded in the 60s, 70s and 80s where the owners are now in their 60s, 70s and 80s,” he says.

Folsom says his firm is looking at 40 to 50 possible deals a quarter, most of them generated internally and a valuation gap — where asset sellers wanted to capture the prices they could have before the financial crisis — is closing.

We’ll be watching closely.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Toru Hanai

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