Private Equity and Venture Capital Glossary of Terms

We have provided a glossary to help you understand important private equity and venture capital terms. Use the definitions to aid learning and help you understand how the industry operates.

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Acquisition – The process of taking over a controlling interest in another company. Acquisition also describes any deal where the bidder ends up with 50 per cent or more of the company taken over.

Acquisition finance – Companies often need to use external finance to fund an acquisition. This can be in the form of bank debt and/or equity, such as a share issue.

Advisory board – An advisory board is common among smaller companies. It is less formal than the board of directors. It usually consists of people, chosen by the company founders, whose experience, knowledge and influence can benefit the growth and direction of the business. The board will meet periodically but does not have any legal responsibilities in regard to the company.

Alternative assets – This term describes non-traditional asset classes. They include private equity, venture capital, hedge funds and real estate. Alternative assets are generally more risky than traditional assets, but they should, in theory, generate higher returns for investors.

Angel investor – See business angels

Asset – Anything owned by an individual, a business or financial institution that has a present or future value i.e. can be turned into cash. In accounting terms, an asset is something of future economic benefit obtained as a result of previous transactions. Tangible assets can be land and buildings, fixtures and fittings; examples of intangible assets are goodwill, patents and copyrights.

Asset allocation – The percentage breakdown of an investment portfolio. This shows how the investment is divided among different asset classes. These classes include shares, bonds, property, cash and overseas investments. Institutions structure their allocation to balance risk and ensure they have a diversified portfolio. The asset classes produce a range of returns – for example, bonds provide a low but steady return, equities a higher but riskier return. Cash has a guaranteed return. Effective asset allocation maximises returns while covering liabilities.

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Balanced fund – A fund that spreads its investments between various types of assets such as stocks and bonds. Investors can avoid excessive risk by balancing their investments in this manner, but should expect only moderate returns.

Benchmark – This is a standard measure used to assess the performance of a company. Investors need to know whether or not a company is hitting certain benchmarks as this will determine the structure of the investment package. For example, a company that is slow to reach certain benchmarks may compensate investors by increasing their stock allocation.

BIMBO ‘buy-in management buy-out’ – A BIMBO enables a company to re-shuffle its allocation of share capital to bring about a change in management. Internally, a group of managers will acquire enough share capital to ‘buy out’ the company from within. An outside team of managers will simultaneously ‘buy in’ to the company management. Both parties may require financial assistance from venture capitalists in order to achieve this end.

Bond – a type of IOU issued by companies or institutions. They generally have a fixed interest rate and maturity value, so they’re very low risk – much less risky than buying equity – but their returns are accordingly low.

Bridge loan – a kind of short-term financing that allows a company to continue running until it can arrange longer-term financing. Companies sometimes seek this because they run out of cash before they receive long-term funding; sometimes they do so to strengthen their balance sheet in the run up to flotation.

Burn rate – the rate at which a start-up uses its venture capital funding before it begins earning any revenue.

Business angels – individuals who provide seed or start-up finance to entrepreneurs in return for equity. Angels usually contribute a lot more than pure cash – they often have industry knowledge and contacts that they can pass on to entrepreneurs. Angels sometimes have non-executive directorships in the companies they invest in.

Buy-out – This is the purchase of a company or a controlling interest of a corporation’s shares. This often happens when a company’s existing managers wish to take control of the company. See management buy-out

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Capital call – see drawdown

Capital drawdown – see drawdown

Capital commitment – Every investor in a private equity fund commits to investing a specified sum of money in the fund partnership over a specified period of time. The fund records this as the limited partnership’s capital commitment. The sum of capital commitments is equal to the size of the fund. Limited partners and the general partner must make a capital commitment to participate in the fund.

Capital distribution – These are the returns that an investor in a private equity fund receives. It is the income and capital realised from investments less expenses and liabilities. Once a limited partner has had their cost of investment returned, further distributions are actual profit. The partnership agreement determines the timing of distributions to the limited partner. It will also determine how profits are divided among the limited partners and general partner.

Capital gain – When an asset is sold for more than the initial purchase cost, the profit is known as the capital gain. This is the opposite to capital loss, which occurs when an asset is sold for less than the initial purchase price. Capital gain refers strictly to the gain achieved once an asset has been sold – an unrealised capital gain refers to an asset that could potentially produce a gain if it was sold. An investor will not necessarily receive the full value of the capital gain – capital gains are often taxed; the exact amount will depend on the specific tax regime.

Capital under management – This is the amount of capital that the fund has at its disposal, and is managing, for investment purposes.

Captive firm – A private equity firm that is tied to a larger organisation, typically a bank, insurance company or corporate.

Carried interest – The share of profits that the fund manager is due once it has returned the cost of investment to investors. Carried interest is normally expressed as a percentage of the total profits of the fund. The industry norm is 20 per cent. The fund manager will normally therefore receive 20 per cent of the profits generated by the fund and distribute the remaining 80 per cent of the profits to investors.

Catch up – A clause that allows the general partner to take, for a limited period of time, a greater share of the carried interest than would normally be allowed. This continues until the time when the carried interest allocation, as agreed in the limited partnership, has been reached. This usually occurs when a fund has agreed a preferred return to investors – a fund may return the cost of investment, plus some other profits, to investors early.

Clawback – A clawback provision ensures that a general partner does not receive more than its agreed percentage of carried interest over the life of the fund. So, for example, if a general partner receives 21 percent of the partnership’s profits instead of the agreed 20 per cent, limited partners can claw back the extra one per cent.

Closing – This term can be confusing. If a fund-raising firm announces it has reached first or second closing, it doesn’t mean that it is not seeking further investment. When fund raising, a firm will announce a first closing to release or drawdown the money raised so far so that it can start investing. A fund may have many closings, but the usual number is around three. Only when a firm announces a final closing is it no longer open to new investors.

Co-investment – Although used loosely to describe any two parties that invest alongside each other in the same company, this term has a special meaning when referring to limited partners in a fund. If a limited partner in a fund has co-investment rights, it can invest directly in a company that is also backed by the private equity fund. The institution therefore ends up with two separate stakes in the company – one indirectly through the fund; one directly in the company. Some private equity firms offer co-investment rights to encourage institutions to invest in their funds.

The advantage for an institution is that it should see a higher return than if it invested all its private equity allocation in funds – it doesn’t have to pay a management fee and won’t see at least 20 per cent of its return swallowed by a fund’s carried interest. But to co-invest successfully, institutions need to have sufficient knowledge of the market to assess whether a co-investment opportunity is a good one.

Company buy-back – The process by which a company buys back the stake held by a financial investor, such as a private equity firm. This is one exit route for private equity funds.

Corporate venturing – This is the process by which large companies invest in smaller companies. They usually do this for strategic reasons. For example, a large corporate such as Nokia may invest in smaller technology companies that are developing new products that can be assimilated into the Nokia product range. A large pharmaceutical company might invest in R&D centres on the basis that they get first refusal of research findings.

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Debt financing – This is raising money for working capital or capital expenditure through some form of loan. This could be by arranging a bank loan or by selling bonds, bills or notes (forms of debt) to individuals or institutional investors. In return for lending the money, the individuals or institutions become creditors and receive a promise to repay principal plus interest on the debt.

Distressed debt (otherwise known as vulture capital) – This is a form of finance used to purchase the corporate bonds of companies that have either filed for bankruptcy or appear likely to do so. Private equity firms and other corporate financiers who buy distressed debt don’t asset-strip and liquidate the companies they purchase. Instead, they can make good returns by restoring them to health and then prosperity. These buyers first become a major creditor of the target company. This gives them leverage to play a prominent role in the reorganisation or liquidation stage.

Distribution – see capital distribution

Distribution in specie/Distribution in kind – This can happen if an investment has resulted in an IPO. A limited partner may receive its return in the form of stock or securities instead of cash. This can be controversial. The stock may not be liquid and limited partners can be left with shares that are worth a fraction of the amount they would have received in cash. There can also be restrictions in the US about how soon a limited partner can sell the stock (Rule 144). This means that sometimes the share value has decreased by the time the limited partner is legally allowed to sell.

Dividend cover – A dividend is the amount of a company’s profits paid to shareholders each year. Dividend cover is the calculation used to show how much of a company’s after-tax profit is being used to finance the dividend. The formula is: Dividend Cover = (Earnings per share/Dividend per share).

Drawdown – When a venture capital firm has decided where it would like to invest, it will approach its own investors in order to draw down the money. The money will already have been pledged to the fund but this is the actual act of transferring the money so that it reaches the investment target.

Dry Close (Dry Closing) – A dry close is when a private equity firm raises money for a fund early on in the cycle, but then agrees to not levy any management fees on the money raised from its Limited Partners until it actually begins investing the fund. Most private equity firms will start raising a new fund when their current fund is around 70% invested. Venture firms tend to raise new funds earlier than buy-out firms, because they usually need to invest in follow-on rounds for their portfolio firms.

Due Diligence – Investing successfully in private equity at a fund or company level, involves thorough investigation. As a long-term investment, it is essential to review and analyse all aspects of the deal before signing. Capabilities of the management team, performance record, deal flow, investment strategy and legals, are examples of areas that are fully examined during the due diligence process.

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Early-stage finance – This is the realm of the venture capital – as opposed to the private equity – firm. A venture capitalist will normally invest in a company when it is in an early stage of development. This means that the company has only recently been established, or is still in the process of being established – it needs capital to develop and to become profitable. Early-stage finance is risky because it’s often unclear how the market will respond to a new company’s concept. However, if the venture is successful, the venture capitalist’s return is correspondingly high.

Equity financing – Companies seeking to raise finance may use equity financing instead of or in addition to debt financing. To raise equity finance, a company creates new ordinary shares and sells them for cash. The new share owners become part-owners of the company and share in the risks and rewards of the company’s business.

Evergreen fund – A fund in which the returns generated by its investments are automatically channelled back into the fund rather than being distributed back to investors. The aim is to keep a continuous supply of capital available for further investments.

Exit – Private equity professionals have their eye on the exit from the moment they first see a business plan. An exit is the means by which a fund is able to realise its investment in a company – by an initial public offering, a trade sale, selling to another private equity firm or a company buy-back. If a fund manager can’t see an obvious exit route in a potential investment, then it won’t touch it. Funds have the power to force an investee company to sell up so they can exit the investment and make their profit, but venture capitalists claim this is rare – the exit is usually agreed with the company’s management team.

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First time fund – This is the first fund a private equity firm ever raises – whether the firm is made up of managers who have never raised a fund before or, as in many cases, the firm is a spin-off, where managers from different, established funds have joined forces to create their own, new firm. In the first instance, the managers do not have a track record so investing with them can be very risky. In the second instance, the managers will have track records from their previous firms, but the investment is still risky because the individuals are unlikely to have worked together as a team before.

Follow-on funding – Companies often require several rounds of funding. If a private equity firm has invested in a particular company in the past, and then provides additional funding at a later stage, this is known as ‘follow-on funding’.

Fund of funds – A fund set up to distribute investments among a selection of private equity fund managers, who in turn invest the capital directly. Fund of funds are specialist private equity investors and have existing relationships with firms. They may be able to provide investors with a route to investing in particular funds that would otherwise be closed to them. Investing in fund of funds can also help spread the risk of investing in private equity because they invest the capital in a variety of funds.

Fund raising – The process by which a private equity firm solicits financial commitments from limited partners for a fund. Firms typically set a target when they begin raising the fund and ultimately announce that the fund has closed at such-and-such amount. This may mean that no additional capital will be accepted. But sometimes the firms will have multiple interim closings each time they have hit particular targets (first closings, second closings, etc.) and final closings. The term cap is the maximum amount of capital a firm will accept in its fund.

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Gatekeeper – Specialist advisers who assist institutional investors in their private equity allocation decisions. Institutional investors with little experience of the asset class or those with limited resources often use them to help manage their private equity allocation. Gatekeepers usually offer tailored services according to their clients’ needs, including private equity fund sourcing and due diligence through to complete discretionary mandates. Most gatekeepers also manage funds of funds.

General partner – This can refer to the top-ranking partners at a private equity firm as well as the firm managing the private equity fund.

General partner contribution/commitment – The amount of capital that the fund manager contributes to its own fund. This is an important way for limited partners to ensure that their interests are aligned with those of the general partner. The US Department of Treasury recently removed the legal requirement of the general partner to contribute at least one per cent of fund capital, but this is still the usual contribution.

Holding period – This is the length of time that an investment is held. For example, if Company A invests in Company B in June 1996 and then sells its stake in June 1999, the holding period is three years.

Hurdle Rate – see preferred return

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Incubator – An entity designed to nurture business ideas or new technologies to the point that they become attractive to venture capitalists. An incubator typically provides physical space and some or all of the services – legal, managerial, technical – needed for a business idea to be developed. Private equity firms often back incubators as a way of generating early-stage investment opportunities.

Institutional buy-out (IBO) – If a private equity firm takes a majority stake in a management buy-out, the deal is an institutional buy-out. This is also the term given to a deal in which a private equity firm acquires a company out right and then allocates the incumbent and/or incoming management a stake in the business.

Initial public offering (IPO) – An IPO is the official term for ‘going public’. It occurs when a privately held company – owned, for example, by its founders plus perhaps its private equity investors – lists a proportion of its shares on a stock exchange. IPOs are an exit route for private equity firms. Companies that do an IPO are often relatively small and new and are seeking equity capital to expand their businesses.

Internal rate of return (IRR) – This is the most appropriate performance benchmark for private equity investments. In simple terms, it is a time-weighted return expressed as a percentage. IRR uses the present sum of cash drawdowns (money invested), the present value of distributions (money returned from investments) and the current value of unrealised investments and applies a discount.

The general partners carried interest may be dependent on the IRR. If so, investors should get a third party to verify the IRR calculations.

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Later stage finance – Capital that private equity firms generally provide to established, medium-sized companies that are breaking even or trading profitably. The company uses the capital to finance strategic moves, such as expansion, growth, acquisitions and management buy-outs.

Lead investor – The firm or individual that organises a round of financing, and usually contributes the largest amount of capital to the deal.

Leveraged buy-out (LBO) – The acquisition of a company using debt and equity finance. As the word leverage implies, more debt than equity is used to finance the purchase, eg 90 per cent debt to ten per cent equity. Normally, the assets of the company being acquired are put up as collateral to secure the debt.

Limited partners – Institutions or individuals that contribute capital to a private equity fund. LPs typically include pension funds, insurance companies, asset management firms and fund of fund investors.

Limited partnership – The standard vehicle for investment in private equity funds. A limited partnership has a fixed life, usually of ten years. The partnership’s general partner makes investments, monitors them and finally exits them for a return on behalf the investors – limited partners. The GP usually invests the partnership’s funds within three to five years and, for the fund’s remaining life, the GP attempts to achieve the highest possible return for each of the investments by exiting. Occasionally, the limited partnership will have investments that run beyond the fund’s life. In this case, partnerships can be extended to ensure that all investments are realised. When all investments are fully divested, a limited partnership can be terminated or ‘wound up’.

Lock-up period – A provision in the underwriting agreement between an investment bank and existing shareholders that prohibits corporate insiders and private equity investors from selling at IPO.

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Management buy-in (MBI) – When a team of managers buys into a company from outside, taking a majority stake, it is likely to need private equity financing. An MBI is likely to happen if the internal management lacks expertise or the funding needed to ‘buy out’ the company from within. It can also happen if there are succession issues – in family businesses, for example, there may be nobody available to take over the management of the company. An MBI can be slightly riskier than a MBO because the new management will not be as familiar with the way the company works.

Management buy-out (MBO) – A private equity firm will often provide finance to enable current operating management to acquire or to buy at least 50 per cent of the business they manage. In return, the private equity firm usually receives a stake in the business. This is one of the least risky types of private equity investment because the company is already established and the managers running it know the business – and the market it operates in – extremely well.

Management fee – This is the annual fee paid to the general partner. It is typically a percentage of limited partner commitments to the fund and is meant to cover the basic costs of running and administering a fund. Management fees tend to run in the 1.5 per cent to 2.5 per cent range, and often scale down in the later years of a partnership to reflect the GP’s reduced workload. The management fee is not intended to incentivise the investment team – carried interest rewards managers for performance.

Mezzanine financing – This is the term associated with the middle layer of financing in leveraged buy-outs. In its simplest form, this is a type of loan finance that sits between equity and secured debt. Because the risk with mezzanine financing is higher than with senior debt, the interest charged by the provider will be higher than that charged by traditional lenders, such as banks. However, equity provision- through warrants or options – is sometimes incorporated into the deal.

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Portfolio – A private equity firm will invest in several companies, each of which is known as a portfolio company. The spread of investments into the various target companies is referred to as the portfolio.

Portfolio company – This is one of the companies backed by a private equity firm.

Placement agent – Placement agents are specialists in marketing and promoting private equity funds to institutional investors. They typically charge two per cent of any capital they help to raise for the fund.

Preferred return – This is the minimum amount of return that is distributed to the limited partners until the time when the general partner is eligible to deduct carried interest. The preferred return ensures that the general partner shares in the profits of the partnership only after investments have performed well.

Private equity This refers to the holding of stock in unlisted companies – companies that are not quoted on a stock exchange. It includes forms of venture capital and MBO financing.

Private markets – A term used in the US to refer to private equity investments.

Private placement – When securities are sold without a public offering, this is referred to as a private placement. Generally, this means that the stock is placed with a select number of private investors.

Public to private – This is when a quoted company is taken into private ownership – more recently by private equity firms. Historically, this has involved a large company selling one of its divisions. A new trend has been for whole companies to be bought out and subsequently delisted.

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Ratchets – This is a structure that determines the eventual equity allocation between groups of shareholders. A ratchet enables a management team to increase its share of equity in a company if the company is performing well. The equity allocation in a company varies, depending on the performance of the company and the rate of return that the private equity firm achieves.

Recapitalisation – This refers to a change in the way a company is financed. It is the result of an injection of capital, either through raising debt or equity.

Secondaries – The term for the market for interests in venture capital and private equity limited partnerships from the original investors, who are seeking liquidity of their investment before the limited partnership terminates. An original investor might want to sell its stake in a private equity firm for a variety of reasons: it needs liquidity, it has changed investment strategy or focus or it needs to re-balance its portfolio. The main advantage for investors looking at secondaries is that they can invest in private equity funds over a shorter period than they could with primaries.

Secondary buy-out – A common exit strategy. This type of buy-out happens when an investment firm’s holding in a private company is sold to another investor. For example, one venture capital firm might sell its stake in a private company to another venture capital firm.

Secondary market – the market for secondary buy-outs. This term should not be confused with secondaries.

Second stage funding – the provision of capital to a company that has entered the production and growth stage although may not be making a profit yet. It is often at this stage that venture capitalists become involved in the financing.

Seed capital – the provision of very early stage finance to a company with a business venture or idea that has not yet been established. Capital is often provided before venture capitalists become involved. However, a small number of venture capitalists do provide seed capital.

Sliding fee scale – A management fee that varies over the life of a partnership.

Spin-out firms – These are captive or semi-captive firms that gain independence from their parent organisations.

Strategic investment – An investment that a corporation makes in a young company that can bring something of value to the corporation itself. The aim may be to gain access to a particular product or technology that the start-up company is developing, or to support young companies that could become customers for the corporation’s products. In venture capital rounds, strategic investors are sometimes distinguished from venture capitalists and others who invest primarily with the aim of generating a large return on their investment. Corporate venturing is an example of strategic investing.

Syndication – The sharing of deals between two or more investors, normally with one firm serving as the lead investor. Investing together allows venture capitalists to pool resources and share the risk of an investment.

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Take downs – see drawdown

Term sheet – A summary sheet detailing the terms and conditions of an investment opportunity.

Tombstone – When a private equity firm has raised a fund, or it wishes to announce a significant closing, it may choose to advertise the event in the financial press – the ad is known as a tombstone. It normally provides details of how much has been raised, the date of closing and the lead investors.

Turnaround – Turnaround finance is provided to a company that is experiencing severe financial difficulties. The aim is to provide enough capital to bring a company back from the brink of collapse. Turnaround investments can offer spectacular returns to investors but there are drawbacks: the uncertainty involved means that they are high risk and they take time to implement.

Venture capital – The term given to early-stage investments. There is often confusion surrounding this term. Many people use the term venture capital very loosely and what they actually mean is private equity.

Vintage year – The year in which a private equity fund makes its first investment.

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