Adviser-led secondary transactions have seen explosive growth over the last five years.  That growth has brought increased regulatory concerns over the conflicts of interests inherent in these transactions and a perceived lack of transparency into this market.  New SEC rules adopted in 2023 will arm regulators with additional tools to identify, exam and investigate market practices.  It is therefore critical for managers running an adviser-led secondary transaction to not only comply with the new rules as they become effective but to structure any such transaction with the SEC’s concerns in mind. 

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.

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. 

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.

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.

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.

Valuation practices will continue to be the subject of disputes. Particularly in times of economic disruption and market volatility, buyers and sellers are more likely to have substantial differences of opinions on valuation, which often lead to the use of earn-outs and resulting post-closing disputes. Use of a cost basis

The regulatory and litigation risks for private funds are greater than at any time since the financial crisis in 2008. Just a few examples prove the point: the pandemic (which caused extraordinary volatility in revenues and valuations for most asset categories); a new administration in Washington D.C. (with a more

On October 7th, 2020, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced the rescheduled date of its 2020 national compliance outreach seminar for investment companies and investment advisers.  This program is intended to help Chief Compliance Officers and other senior personnel at investment companies and investment advisory firms enhance their compliance programs.  The SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE), Division of Investment Management (IM), and the Asset Management Unit (AMU) of the Division of Enforcement jointly sponsor the compliance outreach program.  The national seminar will be held virtually on the afternoon of Thursday, November 19th, 2020 via a live webcast from the SEC’s Washington, D.C., headquarters from noon until 4:50 p.m. EST.