The recent travails of privately-owned Swedish fintech Klarna have ignited the debate over valuations

Private equity investors have been put on warning after press reports last month that privately-owned BNPL (buy now, pay later) specialist Klarna was seeking to raise fresh capital at a steep discount to its previous valuation.

This has raised the question of whether private equity valuations need to be downgraded across the board, as this would affect many investment trusts with unquoted holdings.

The answer is almost certainly not but investors do need to know what they own and whether they are happy with the risk that in some cases valuations will need to be cut.

RETAIL CASUALTY

According to the Wall Street Journal, Swedish firm Klarna approached investors in May to raise $1 billion of new financing at a valuation ‘in the low $30 billion range’.

That compares with a valuation of more than $45 billion in June last year when Japan’s SoftBank led the previous investment round.

The Financial Times goes further, suggesting investors have recently been approached ‘with the opportunity to invest at a valuation below $20 billion’, or less than half its value of a year ago.

The collapse in valuations of publicly-listed buy now, pay later competitors such as US company Affirm (AFRM:NASDAQ), whose shares are down 80% this year, means Klarna investors may now have to bite the bullet.

SWINGS AND ROUNDABOUTS

UK investment trust Chrysalis Investments (CHRY) revealed in its March factsheet that Klarna was its second largest holding, making up 19% of the portfolio and group net asset value of roughly 212p per share based on what was thought to be a conservative valuation of $30 billion.

As analysts at Numis point out, a potential funding round for Klarna at a $15 billion valuation would reduce Chrysalis’s NAV by 9.5% to around 192p, while its shares are currently trading at around 106p or a 45% discount adjusted for the reduced valuation of Klarna.

On that basis, it could be argued that the damage has been done and the downside for its stake in Klarna is already reflected in the share price.

Notably the valuation of Starling Bank, Chrysalis’s biggest holding, was revised upward to almost twice the level of a year ago in its April funding round, showing that, as the managers argue, ‘fast growth is able to counteract valuation compression in certain circumstances’.

Also, according to media reports, insurance technology company Wefox – which represents around 11% of Chrysalis’s portfolio – is in advanced talks to raise money at a valuation of between $5 billion and $6 billion.

That is almost double its valuation of $3 billion a year ago, so what Chrysalis has ‘lost’ on its Klarna stake it has partially recouped on some of its other investments.



THE BIG NAMES

Most small investors who want exposure to the $5.3 trillion global private equity market tend to buy specialist investments trusts.

The top three private equity investment companies are 3i (III), which manages £13.5 billion of private assets, HarbourVest Global (HVPE) with £3 billion of assets and Pantheon International (PIN) with £2.4 billion of assets.

The biggest holding in 3i’s 30-stock portfolio is Dutch store chain Action, Europe’s biggest non-food discount retailer which was worth just under £7.2 billion or 55% of total assets at the end of March.

The value of Action increased by a whopping £2.6 billion last year or more than three times the increase in value of the next top 10 stocks (roughly £830 million).

3i flagged declines in value at two of its holdings which together amounted to £63 million, a drop in the ocean compared with the £3.5 billion increase in the value of its overall portfolio.

Coincidentally on 23 June the firm announced it was selling its stake in European natural healthcare player Havea to BC Partners at a 50% premium to its March 2022 valuation.

It seems unlikely 3i will see any major downgrades to the NAV of its assets in the immediate future, which helps explain the smaller discount on its shares – just 17% – compared with the sector average of 25%.

CHECK THE SMALL PRINT

While 3i’s portfolio is fairly transparent, investors should really do their homework on other private equity trusts before they decide to invest.

For example, HarbourVest Global invests in more than 1,000 companies with its top 10 holdings only representing around 8.5% of the portfolio.

They include Klarna, UK fintech company Revolut, Chinese fast fashion e-commerce platform Shein and US buyout firm Preston Hollow.

The firm claims its ‘multi-layered investment approach’, which involves taking stakes in many different businesses at different stages of their evolution, ‘creates diversification’ and leads to a ‘well-balanced portfolio’.

However, digging into the firm’s latest update it turns out almost a third of the portfolio was invested in technology companies at the end of May.

Given the difficult backdrop for tech and tech-enabled businesses over the last six to nine months, it is hardly surprising the shares are down nearly 30% year-to-date and trade at a 45% discount to NAV.

Pantheon International is one of the longest-established private equity firms on the market and takes a different approach to both 3i and HarbourVest.

As well as buying direct stakes in companies, it invests in other private equity funds in the US and Europe including smaller niche funds which are hard for private investors to access.

GETTING IN AT THE GROUND FLOOR

This means it can get in ‘at the ground floor’ in exciting new smaller companies, but it also means it pays fees to other managers which can be expensive and it has a higher risk profile.

In each of its most recent monthly updates, for March and April, the firm has recorded around a 4% uplift in NAV due to a mixture of valuation gains, foreign exchange movements and share buybacks.

However, digging into the latest monthly report it turns out only around 10% of the valuations of its fund investments in April were the result of ‘marking to market’ at the end of the month.

Remarkably, more than three quarters of the valuations of its fund holdings were based on their managers’ reports dating back to December 2021, and some even dated back to last September.

In other words there is a serious lag in valuing the bulk of the firm’s portfolio, which means investors might be in for a nice surprise while asset values in general are rising but they could be in for a nasty shock when values are falling.

So, while the official NAV at the end of April stood at 447p per share, the actual NAV could be somewhat different, which goes some way to explaining the sizeable discount on the shares at present.

EXPERT VIEWS

Just as with individual stocks, calling the bottom in private equity vehicles is impossible but the team at Numis argue Chrysalis’s current share price appears to be ‘factoring in a significant amount of bad news’.

They also highlight the fact the trust had around £62 million cash at the end of March as well as some £40 million in listed holdings adjusting for share price moves since then.

James Carthew, head of investment company research at QuotedData, says past data suggests private equity NAVs tend to beat their listed market counterparts during bear markets.

‘Discounts tend to overshoot on the downside as investors get overly pessimistic and some real bargains appear. Shares in HgCapital Trust (HGT) have risen more than five-fold since 2008, and despite trading on a 44% discount Pantheon international’s share price has risen more than ten-fold,’ says Carthew.

Ultimately, as we have said before, investors have to weigh up their risk appetite and their time horizon when deciding whether to invest in anything.

The lower visibility which comes with owning private equity investment companies makes that exercise even more important.

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