The Portfolio Company Playbook

Economic headwinds and the interest rate environment that developed over the course of 2023 increased financial stress on portfolio companies and portend heightened litigation risk in 2024 for portfolio companies and their private fund sponsors. Specifically, interest rate increases that accelerated through 2022 continued in 2023, and compounded existing economic stressors including tight liquidity and inflation coming out of 2020 and 2021, as well as increased cost and other burdens related to ESG and regulatory compliance. These pressures put portfolio companies in often unsustainable financial positions, causing them to prematurely seek liquidity events, violate debt covenants with lenders, and resort to bankruptcy, all of which has led to an increase in disputes and litigation, which we expect to continue in 2024.

To understand the litigation and regulatory risks that are coming in 2024 for private capital, it is helpful to look back briefly on recent events. Arguably, the single most important event over the last 18 months was the rapid increase in interest rates by the central banks in the United States, England, and Europe. From March 2022 to August 2023, the Federal Reserve increased interest rates at the fastest clip in more than 40 years, to break inflation that had reached the highest levels since the 1970s.

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.     

As litigation claims against portfolio companies have increased, so have accompanying claims asserted directly against funds (and their sponsors). Plaintiffs’ reasoning for including funds as defendants is no mystery: funds often have greater financial resources than the defendant portfolio company, particularly where the portfolio company is in distress, and thus represent the proverbial “deep pockets.” This is especially true where a liquidity event involving the portfolio company either recently occurred or is on the horizon. Liquidity events, which range from major portfolio company transactions to liquidation or reorganization, often lead to substantial returns for funds.

Another source of litigation risk for fund sponsors are claims brought by portfolio company employees.  Sponsors should be aware of these risks, particularly when the portfolio company is in distress or is considering a sale or other transaction affecting the disposition of shares in the company.  We have set forth below just a few examples of litigation that can be brought against the fund, sponsor, and board designees by portfolio company employees, likely triggering at least indemnity considerations (which need to be evaluated in connection with insurance and indemnity at the portfolio company level), and might also affect the value of the portfolio company and in turn the value of the fund’s assets.

Private funds frequently negotiate for special rights when making an investment in a portfolio company, such as the right to appoint one or more board directors, voting rights, and liquidation preferences. Fund sponsors often focus solely on the positive aspects of these special rights, such as increased control, without considering fully other implications. As the Peter Parker principle reminds us, with great power comes great responsibility. In the fund context, sponsors should remember the portfolio company corollary: with greater control comes greater exposure to liability.

Over the last few years, we have seen an uptick in litigation claims against sponsors and funds arising out of their interests in portfolio companies.  A fund sponsor’s participation on a portfolio company board, in particular, is a risk factor for the entire investment structure (the GP, the Management Company, individual members of the GP and Management Company, and the Fund) due to conflicts of interest, whether real or perceived, and related competing fiduciary duties.  There are, however, steps that fund sponsors can take to manage and reduce their risks.  The first step is to develop a full understanding of where, and why, risks lie in the investment structure.  With that understanding, sponsors can develop and implement practices to manage and reduce those risks.