Photo of Todd J. Ohlms

Todd J. Ohlms is as a partner in the Litigation department and a member of the Asset Management Litigation Group. Todd has represented clients in business-critical litigation matters for over 25 years, and has tried several cases to verdict before juries and the bench. He has also participated in numerous arbitration proceedings, including counseling clients regarding disputes subject to international arbitration agreements.

Todd is often retained by private equity firms to counsel them and their portfolio companies on a wide range of matters and is frequently chosen to serve as outside general counsel to their portfolio companies. He also represents family offices in disputes related to their operating companies where sensitive and complex relationships often play as large a role in determining the result as the actual legal theories at issue.

As IPOs and other traditional paths to liquidity for private assets have become more challenging, GP-led secondary transactions have emerged as a powerful and popular tool across closed-end private funds, leading to explosive growth over the last five years. And while macro factors influence their prevalence year over year, these transactions remain broadly popular across the various stakeholders in these transactions, facilitating different goals for different parties: 

  • Existing Investors (LPs):  Near-term liquidity in a liquidity-constrained market, typically with an option to continue participation if desired
  • New Investors (Buyers):  Access to a mature portfolio with unrealized upside
  • Fund Adviser (GP):  Extended duration to capture future upside of well-performing assets, additional capital to support existing portfolio, and reset economics aligning with longer-term outlook

Go to any private equity event in the last 12 months, and “energy transition” will have been discussed, meaning the shift in energy production away from fossil‑based systems to low or zero carbon ones. As fund managers continue to raise funds focused on investments in this sector, we see no reason for this trend to change in 2023.

The ever-increasing web of ESG regulation is of course highly relevant for such funds and their investments, but the sector-relevant risks are much wider. There are four risks of which fund managers need to be aware.

It’s a pattern we often see in boom-and-bust cycles—disputes rising in the period after a wave crests. SPAC deal volume hit an unprecedented high in 2021, but then slowed down in 2022 alongside IPOs. However, the fallout from the SPAC wave will continue to unfold this year, generating increased regulatory attention and a growing number of disputes.

The SEC’s Enforcement Division is conducting a sweep investigation of large investment advisers regarding their employees’ use of “off-channel” communications.  The sweep, which has been widely reported in the press, focuses on text messages from personal phones, personal email, WhatsApp and other platforms not typically captured or monitored by advisers.  The sweep is causing considerable industry concern, following the SEC’s announcement of settlements against a number of large broker-dealers for use of off-channel communications, that resulted in $1.235 billion of cumulative penalties. 

Implications of SEC attempt to curb indemnification for private fund managers

The SEC spent 2022 making multiple and sweeping proposals to amend rules under the Advisers Act, many of which have the ability to significantly re-shape market standards for private funds.  Here, we focus on the SEC’s proposal to undo a common protection for private fund advisers – the ability to rely, as against the private fund or its investors, on exculpatory and indemnification provisions for a breach of fiduciary duty, willful misfeasance, recklessness, or simple negligence in providing services to the private fund.  This prohibition would relate not just to liability under the Advisers Act, but to all causes of action.

Amid rising interest rates, tightening credit markets, geopolitical concerns in Europe and Asia, stubborn inflation and continuing supply chain issues, there is a growing sense of economic uncertainty.  This uncertainty will no doubt increase the frequency of valuation disputes in the year ahead. We generally see valuation disputes spring from four primary sources:

  1. breach of representations and warranties in purchase agreements, which raise questions as to company value absent the breach;
  2. unfair prejudice to minority investors or limited partners;
  3. disagreements about price paid at exit, including earn out disputes; and
  4. increased regulatory focus on exams, which may assess valuation policies and require recurring asset valuations.

Valuation disputes tend to be centered on disagreements about accounting practices, dates of assessed value, and valuation methodology. 

Crypto firm bankruptcies and resulting disruption in the crypto ecosystem will continue to exacerbate liquidity and regulatory concerns in this space. Signs of contagion are evident as prices of almost every cryptocurrency type have halved in recent months.  Since all participants supporting the crypto ecosystem are at risk, managing that risk is critical.

Everything, everywhere, all at once is our risk thesis for 2023, but one must not forget about concentration risk.  This issue has rocketed up diligence agendas for LPs and GPs alike as the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank proved it really was the bank for venture capital.The entry of SVB into receivership on March 10, 2023 highlighted just how central it had become to U.S. venture capital, providing deposit and credit facilities not just to asset managers, but also to many (and in some cases the vast majority) of their portfolio companies and investors.  While deposit accounts were protected in full, companies unable to access those accounts for several days faced significant disruption.  Further, while borrowers were still bound by terms of credit agreements, there was no immediate obligation on the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) as receiver to honor drawdown requests (although the bridge bank did announce it would honor credit facilities). Net asset value (NAV) lines, subscription lines and investors’ own deposit and credit lines were also affected. The deposits and loans of SVB were acquired from FDIC by First Citizens Bank on March 27, 2023.

Everything, everywhere, all at once, as a descriptor, captures the litigation and regulatory risks for the asset management industry in 2023. Every corner of the market faces greater risks than at any time since 2008. After years of breakneck growth fueled by low interest rates and a largely laissez faire regulatory regime, significant change is here.

As our other Top Ten posts have demonstrated, there is no shortage of risks for private fund sponsors to navigate in today’s economic and regulatory environment. Nevertheless, they need to prioritize the risk that hits closest to home – lawsuits by private litigants seeking to pull sponsors, their funds, and their board director designees into litigation. These suits most frequently arise out of portfolio companies and most notably sale, business combination, or other liquidity or change of control events at a fund’s portfolio company. We have seen a considerable uptick in these types of lawsuits over the last several years, and we expect the trend to continue – and likely accelerate.