Private Equity Litigation

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.

Representatives of asset managers often take up positions on the boards of portfolio companies. We have written posts before on some of the litigation and regulatory risks that can arise, both for the asset managers and the individuals including: Portfolio Company Risk: Plaintiffs Set Sights on Sponsors and Board Directors, The Trend of Increasing Disclosure Obligations for Private Funds Continues in 2022, SEC Proposes Advisers Act Reforms Focusing on Private Fund Investor Protections.

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.     

If 2021 was the year in which regulators and investors enthusiastically embraced environmental, social and governance (“ESG”) considerations, by creating new legal and regulatory frameworks, then 2022 will be the year for asset managers to identify and confront the practical challenges of integrating legal requirements and stakeholder expectations into investment policy and performance.

We reported last year that unprecedented SPAC deal volume signaled an increased risk for disputes given their unique structure, including risks associated with disclosure requirements, material non-public information, valuation, and conflicts of interest. Our assessment proved prescient, as the SEC began to flex its enforcement muscles vis-à-vis SPACs as the year progressed, and took specific notice of potential asymmetries between SPACs and traditional IPOs that may form the basis for disputes in 2022.

The SEC’s push to regulate the next generation of blockchain-based applications will likely give rise to disputes and enforcement actions, particularly in the developing decentralized finance (DeFi) space. Although DeFi has the potential to enhance or replace traditional financial products by speeding execution and reducing transaction costs using blockchain technology, the SEC presumes that actors in this space are generally offering “securities” subject to its jurisdiction.  

Last year, we wrote, “The regulatory and litigation risks for private funds are greater than at any time since the financial crisis in 2008.” That statement is even more true today. The Wall Street Journal recently published separate front-page stories on an SEC initiative to oversee large private companies and the explosive growth of the private credit industry (suggesting a more active phase of regulatory oversight). Growth itself is not necessarily a risk, but disputes – and regulators – tend to follow capital.

Private funds are now an integral part of the global economy and, as a consequence, are affected by it. Currently, there are massive structural changes occurring simultaneously across industries and the economy as a whole. For example: cryptocurrencies could threaten legacy payment systems and currencies; the electrification of the auto industry may lead to obsolescence of the internal combustion engine; and climate change will increase the ESG groundswell. These changes are not merely disruptive; they are transformative.