Flush with cash, Europe's buyout firms join US dealmaking boom

Paris-based PAI Partners paid about US$3.3 billion (S$4.47 billion) to buy PepsiCo's juice brands via a new joint venture. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - Europe's private equity firms are snapping up US companies at the fastest pace since the financial crisis and taking on more staff on the ground as they seek to expand their reach across the Atlantic.

The region's buyout funds have been involved in more than US$83 billion (S$112.3 billion) of US deals announced so far this year, buoyed by large acquisitions by Sweden's EQT and France's PAI Partners among others.

That has helped fuel a hiring spree by those investors and a number of their peers that are chasing post-Covid opportunities beyond their own backyards. European private equity is looking to the world's largest economy as it rebounds from the pandemic and dealmaking surges, putting them on track for their busiest year in the country since 2007.

The booming US market for mergers and acquisitions offers a natural home for the billions of dollars raised by the region's buyout firms in ever larger funds, which are under pressure to sprinkle their cash more globally.

The latest major deal was inked last week, when Sweden's Nordic Capital joined forces with New York-based Insight Partners in a US$6.4 billion bid for healthcare software firm Inovalon Holdings.

In the wake of its biggest ever acquisition, Nordic is planning even more investment hires in the region by the year-end, said Mr Thomas Vetander, a partner who manages its US office in New York.

"We're hiring to keep up with the pace of dealmaking in the US, which we expect to be very active," Mr Vetander said in an interview. "The US just has a big market share of the healthcare opportunities we are looking for - it's quite homogeneous, private to a large extent, scalable and better built to take on new innovation that comes with changing consumer behaviors."

Buyout firms are hauling in ever-bigger tallies of cash as yield-starved investors seek better returns amid low interest rates. European-based private equity funds raised US$172 billion last year, more than 60 per cent higher than the amount in 2019, according to Preqin data.

So far this year, they've amassed about US$120 billion, already surpassing the total for the whole of 2019. On top of that, the US outlook is promising - for now.

Its economy will grow 6.2 per cent this year versus 4.7 per cent for the euro zone as consumer spending recovers, according to forecasts compiled by Bloomberg. Still, renewed fears that the spread of the delta variant of coronavirus could weigh on global demand have been stalking global markets recently.

Paris-based PAI Partners this month carried out its first on-the-ground deal in the US after forming a team in 2019 to scout for such opportunities. The firm paid about US$3.3 billion to buy Tropicana, Naked and other juice brands from PepsiCo via a new joint venture with the soft-drinks heavyweight. "You can expect us to be more active in the US going forward," Ms Maud Brown, one of PAI's lead partners on the deal, said in an interview.

EQT agreed to the US$4.6 billion purchase of London-listed FirstGroup's iconic US yellow school-bus unit and other assets in May, before partnering with Goldman Sachs Group in July for an US$8.5 billion takeover of drug-trial company Parexel International Corp.

EQT has hired more than 30 US-based staff this year, adding to the 250 already employed there, said a person familiar with its operations.

"To be exposed to more opportunities that yield higher returns, and play with the big fish, firms are going after the US market," said Mr Clement Pointillart, executive director at Belgium-based growth investor Verlinvest, which has recently added more US staff.

It's "where you'll have the most talent, biggest innovation power and a large market without barriers for expansion".

Other European firms expanding in the US include London-based health-care investor GHO Capital Partners, which announced in July that it opened a new office in North Carolina to accelerate growth opportunities.

Paris-based Astorg Partners, which primarily focuses on healthcare and tech in the US, is also expanding there, according to a spokeswoman for the firm. Swiss firm Partners Group Holding is also bolstering its US focus, with more than half of its deals already involving companies based there, the firm said in March.

The firm is hiring across all three of its US offices,in Denver, Houston and New York, and currently has 15 open positions across a range of areas, according to a spokesman.

"The US is an area of strategic focus for us," said Mr David Layton, who took over as the first sole US-based CEO earlier this year. "We see a lot of potential for future growth here, particularly on the client side."

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