Measuring Institutional Investors’ Skill from Their Investments in Private Equity

Michael S. Weisbach is the Ralph W. Kurtz Chair in Finance at Ohio State University. This post is based on a recent paper by Professor Weisbach; Daniel R. Cavagnaro, California State University, Fullerton; Berk A. Sensoy, Ohio State University Fisher College of Business, and Yingdi Wang, California State University, Fullerton.

Institutional investors have become the most important investors in the U.S. economy, controlling more than 70% of the publicly traded equity, much of the debt, and virtually all of the private equity. Their investment decisions have far reaching consequences for their beneficiaries: universities’ spending decisions, pension plan funding levels and consequent funding decisions by states and corporations, as well as the ability of foundations to support charitable endeavors all depend crucially on the returns they receive on their investments. For this reason, the highest paid individuals in these organizations are often their investment officers. This high level of pay is often controversial, and it is not clear from existing evidence whether these compensation decisions are optimal. If investment performance is random, then it is hard to justify this high level of pay; however, if higher quality investment officers lead to better returns, then it potentially makes sense to pay high salaries to attract them.

One place where investment officers’ skill is potentially important is their ability to select private equity funds. The private equity industry has experienced dramatic growth since the 1990s, bringing the total assets under management to more than $3.4 trillion in June 2013 (Preqin). Most of the money in this industry comes from institutional investors, and private equity investments represent a substantial portion of their portfolios. Moreover, the variation in returns across private equity funds is large; the difference between top quartile and bottom quartile returns has averaged approximately nineteen percentage points. Evaluating private equity partnerships, especially new ones, requires substantial judgment from potential investors, who must assess a partnership’s strategy, talents, experience, and even how the various partners interact with one another. Consequently, the ability to select high quality partnerships is one place where an institutional investor’s talent is likely to be particularly important. However, it is not known whether different institutional investors on average receive different returns. Moreover, it is not clear whether any differences in returns across investors reflect the investors’ skill, their access to better private equity groups, or just random luck.

In this paper, we consider a large sample of limited partners’ (LPs’) private equity investments in venture and buyout funds and estimate the extent to which manager skill affects the returns from their private equity investments. Our sample includes 12,043 investments made by 630 unique LPs, each of which have at least four private equity investments in either venture capital or buyout funds during the 1991 to 2006 period. We first test the hypothesis that skill in fund selection, in addition to luck, affects investors’ returns. We then estimate the importance of skill in determining returns. Our results imply that an increase of one standard deviation in skill leads to about a 3% increase in IRR. The magnitude of this effect suggests that variation in skill is an important driver of institutional investors’ returns.

We first perform a model-free test of whether there is differential skill in selecting private equity investments. We use a bootstrap approach to simulate the distribution of LPs’ performance under the assumption that all LPs are identically skilled (i.e., that there is no differential skill and all differences in performance reflect random luck). We measure performance first in terms of the proportion of an LP’s investments that are in the top half of the return distribution for funds of the same type in the same vintage year, and then in terms of average returns across all of the LP’s private equity investments. The comparison with the bootstrapped distributions suggests that more LPs do consistently well (above median) or consistently poorly (below median) in their selection of private equity funds than what one would expect in the absence of differential skill. Furthermore, statistical tests of the standard deviation of LP performance shows that there is more variation in performance that what one would expect in the absence of differential skill. These results hold when restricting the analysis to various subsamples by time period, fund and investor type. These analyses suggest that there are more LPs who are consistently able to earn abnormally high returns than one would expect by chance. Some LPs appear to be better than other LPs at selecting the GPs who will subsequently earn the highest returns.

To quantify the magnitude of this skill, we extend the method of Korteweg and Sorensen (KS) (2015) to measure LP skill. The KS model assumes that the net-of-fee return on a private equity fund consists of three main components: a firm-specific persistent effect, a firm-time random effect that applies to each year of the fund’s life, and a fund-specific random effect, as well as other controls. We first use this model to estimate the firm-specific component that measures the skill of each GP managing the private equity funds in our sample. We use these estimates to strip away any idiosyncratic random effects from the returns on each fund, thereby adjusting them so that they reflect only the skill of the GP. Then, using Bayesian regressions, we estimate the extent to which LPs can pick high ability GPs for their investments. The estimation is done by Bayesian Markov Chain Monte Carlo techniques, and allows us to measure the extent to which more skillful LPs earn higher returns.

The results from the extended KS model imply that a one standard deviation increase in LP skill leads to an expected three-percentage point increase in annual IRR from their private equity investments. The effect is even larger for venture capital investments, in which a one standard deviation increase in skill leads to a five-percentage point increase in returns. The large magnitude of these estimates highlights the importance of skill in earning returns from private equity investments.

In summary, our results suggest that skill is an important factor in the performance of institutional investors in their private equity investments. Relative to their peers, some LPs perform consistently well, while some perform consistently poorly. This outperformance exists for these LPs’ investments in both buyout and venture investments, and the differences are economically meaningful.

The full paper is available for download here.

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