Central Europe’s Forgotten Convergence Crusade

With the main Central Europe stock markets in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland beaten up through the first half, private equity competitors have moved to urge rediscovery of their asset class marginalized over the past decade, with less than $1 billion in funds raised last year according to industry association EMPEA, just 1% of the broader region total. Despite relatively high-growth consumer-driven economies with a combined 120 million population among a dozen EU member states, inflows are a tiny fraction of the pre-crisis level, when excitement peaked over post-communist income, competitiveness and earnings “catch up.” From 2006-08 $11 billion was easily solicited on strong returns, with individual fund closes above $500 million targeting company privatization and restructuring. Since that period, only half of managers have launched another vehicle, as popular telecoms plays faded. Engineering and technology is a new focus, and exits have included public share offerings in Budapest and Bucharest alongside traditional trade sales. The private capital penetration ratio is 0.1%, and although currency and political risks are favorable versus other emerging markets deal size is a constraint. Outside active development institutions like the EBRD and EIB with a dual smaller transaction mandate, general partners are hard-pressed to allocate several hundred million dollars as most commitments concentrate in the $50 million range. Domestic pension funds are typically absent, with a public instrument preference or bars to speculative venture capital participation. Poland, Romania and the Baltics are exceptions, but their engagement is “piecemeal,” the analysis suggests. It adds on the positive side that fund relationships have developed over decades and valuations are low, with recent buyouts under six times earnings. Low to middle market funds between $100-250 million are an open space, and credit could be offered with equity, experts believe. Poland has absorbed one-third of activity historically, and Southeast Europe and the Balkans are underrepresented, but for private managers to jump in, development agencies must take the lead. Poland’s future in turn is under scrutiny with a populist government emphasizing state intervention already eliminating the voluntary pension industry.

Russia and Turkey were not covered but managers have soured on their prospects too in country choice surveys. Russian securities are under US and EU sanctions, but oil and gas plays have recovered with higher prices as re-elected President Putin again promises economic reforms, with technocrats including former Finance Minister Kudrin in line to rejoin the cabinet. Fiscal discipline may involve military spending cuts and raised retirement age, as monetary policy progressively loosens with rate easing. The bill for big private bank rescues may reach $50 billion as secret stakes and deals with government giant VTB were revealed. The other state behemoth Sberbank meanwhile shed its Turkish subsidiary nominally to focus at home, as concerns also mount about the country’s overstretched banks and economy. President Erdogan handily won re-election, although opposition parties widened their parliament bloc, as financial assets continue to perform at the bottom of the regional pack. With the lira’s double digit depreciation family conglomerates, which must roll over overseas credit lines, are suddenly in renegotiation mode and the outcome may further unsettle byzantine central bank and political standoffs.

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