Private markets: A slower era

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If 2022 was a tale of two halves, with robust fundraising and deal activity in the first six months followed by a slowdown in the second half, then 2023 might be considered a tale of one whole.

Macroeconomic headwinds persisted throughout the year, with rising financing costs and an uncertain growth outlook taking a toll on private markets. Full-year fundraising continued to decline from 2021’s lofty peak, weighed down by the “denominator effect” that persisted in part due to a less active deal market. Managers largely held onto assets to avoid selling in a lower-multiple environment, fueling an activity-dampening cycle in which distribution-starved limited partners (LPs) reined in new commitments.

Performance in most private asset classes remained below historical averages for a second consecutive year. Decade-long tailwinds from low and falling interest rates and consistently expanding multiples seem to be things of the past. As private market managers look to boost performance in this new era of investing, a deeper focus on revenue growth and margin expansion will be needed now more than ever.

This preview article of our full 2024 Global Private Markets Review summarizes the highlights from our latest research. The report, which will be published in March, covers the 2023 journey of each private market asset class in detail.

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Global fundraising contracted

Fundraising fell 22 percent across private market asset classes globally to just over $1 trillion, as of year-end reported data—the lowest total since 2017. Fundraising in North America, a rare bright spot in 2022, declined in line with global totals, while in Europe, fundraising proved most resilient, falling just 3 percent. In Asia, fundraising fell precipitously and now sits 72 percent below the region’s 2018 peak.

Despite difficult fundraising conditions, headwinds did not affect all strategies or managers equally. Private equity (PE) buyout strategies posted their best fundraising year ever, and larger managers and vehicles also fared well, continuing the prior year’s trend toward greater fundraising concentration.

The numerator effect persisted

Despite a marked recovery in the denominator—the 1,000 largest US retirement funds grew 7 percent in the year ending September 2023, after falling 14 percent the prior year, for example—many LPs remain overexposed to private markets relative to their target allocations. LPs started 2023 overweight: according to analysis from CEM Benchmarking, average allocations across PE, infrastructure, and real estate were at or above target allocations as of the beginning of the year. And the numerator grew throughout the year, as a lack of exits and rebounding valuations drove net asset values (NAVs) higher. While not all LPs strictly follow asset allocation targets, our analysis in partnership with StepStone Group suggests that an overallocation of just one percentage point can reduce planned commitments by as much as 10 to 12 percent per year for five years or more. (See sidebar, “Sources,” for more information on the data and analysis on which this article is based.)

Despite these headwinds, recent surveys indicate that LPs remain broadly committed to private markets. In fact, the majority plan to maintain or increase allocations over the medium to long term.

Investors fled to known names and larger funds

Fundraising concentration reached its highest level in more than a decade, as investors continued to shift new commitments in favor of the largest fund managers. The 25 most successful fundraisers collected 41 percent of aggregate commitments to closed-end funds (with the top five managers accounting for nearly half that total). It bears noting that closed-end fundraising totals may understate the extent of concentration in the industry overall, as the largest managers also tend to be more successful in raising noninstitutional capital.

The year ahead in private markets

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While the largest funds grew even larger—the largest vehicles on record were raised in buyout, real estate, infrastructure, and private debt in 2023—smaller and newer funds struggled. Fewer than 1,700 funds of less than $1 billion were closed during the year, half as many as closed in 2022 and the fewest of any year since 2012. New manager formation also fell to the lowest level since 2012, with just 651 new firms launched in 2023.

Whether recent fundraising concentration and a spate of M&A activity signals the beginning of oft-rumored consolidation in the private markets remains uncertain, as a similar pattern developed in each of the last two fundraising downturns before giving way to renewed entrepreneurialism among general partners (GPs) and commitment diversification among LPs. Compared with how things played out in the last two downturns, perhaps this movie really is different, or perhaps we’re watching a trilogy reusing a familiar plotline.

Dry powder inventory spiked (again)

Private markets assets under management totaled $13.1 trillion as of June 30, 2023, and have grown nearly 20 percent per annum since 2018. Dry powder reserves—the amount of capital committed but not yet deployed—increased to $3.7 trillion, marking the ninth consecutive year of growth. Dry powder inventory—the amount of capital available to GPs expressed as a multiple of annual deployment—increased for the second consecutive year in PE, as new commitments continued to outpace deal activity. Inventory sat at 1.6 years in 2023, up markedly from the 0.9 years recorded at the end of 2021 but still within the historical range. NAV grew as well, largely driven by the reluctance of managers to exit positions and crystallize returns in a depressed multiple environment.

Private equity strategies diverged

Buyout and venture capital, the two largest PE sub-asset classes, charted wildly different courses over the past 18 months. Buyout notched its highest fundraising year ever in 2023, and its performance improved, with funds posting a (still paltry) 5 percent net internal rate of return through September 30. And although buyout deal volumes declined by 19 percent, 2023 was still the third-most-active year on record. On the other hand, venture capital (VC) fundraising declined by nearly 60 percent, equaling its lowest total since 2015, and deal volume fell by 36 percent to the lowest level since 2019. VC funds returned –3 percent through September and have now posted negative returns for seven consecutive quarters. VC was the fastest-growing—as well as the highest-performing—PE strategy by a significant margin from 2010 to 2022, but investors appear to be reevaluating their approach in the current environment.

Private equity entry multiples contracted

PE buyout entry multiples declined by roughly one turn from 11.9 to 11.0 times EBITDA, slightly outpacing the decline in public market multiples (down from 12.1 to 11.3 times EBITDA), through the first nine months of 2023. For nearly a decade leading up to 2022, managers consistently sold assets into a higher multiple environment than that in which they had bought those assets, providing a substantial performance tailwind for the industry. Nowhere has this been more true than in technology. After experiencing more than eight turns of multiple expansion from 2009 to 2021 (the most of any sector), technology multiples have declined by nearly three turns in the past two years, 50 percent more than in any other sector. Overall, roughly two-thirds of the total return for buyout deals that were entered in 2010 or later, and exited 2021 or before, can be attributed to market multiple expansion and leverage. Now, with falling multiples and higher financing costs, revenue growth and margin expansion are taking center stage for GPs.

Real estate receded

Demand uncertainty, slowing rent growth, and elevated financing costs drove cap rates higher and made price discovery challenging, all of which weighed on deal volume, fundraising, and investment performance. Global closed-end fundraising declined 34 percent year over year, and funds returned –4 percent in the first nine months of the year, losing money for the first time since the 2007–08 global financial crisis. Capital shifted away from core and core-plus strategies as investors sought liquidity via redemptions in open-ended vehicles, from which net outflows reached their highest level in at least two decades. Opportunistic strategies benefited from this shift, with investors focusing on capital appreciation over income generation in a market where alternative sources of yield have grown more attractive. Rising interest rates widened bid–ask spreads and impaired deal volume across food groups, including in what were formerly hot sectors: multifamily and industrial.

Private debt pays dividends

Debt again proved to be the most resilient private asset class against a turbulent market backdrop. Fundraising declined just 13 percent, largely driven by lower commitments to direct lending strategies for which a slower PE deal environment has made capital deployment challenging. The asset class also posted the highest returns among all private asset classes through September 30. Many private debt securities are tied to floating rates, which enhance returns in a rising rate environment. Thus far, managers appear to have successfully navigated the rising incidence of default and distress exhibited across the broader leveraged lending market. Although direct lending deal volume declined from 2022, private lenders financed an all-time high 59 percent of leveraged buyout transactions last year and are now expanding into additional strategies to drive the next era of growth.

Infrastructure took a detour

After several years of robust growth and strong performance, infrastructure and natural-resources fundraising declined by 53 percent, equaling the lowest total since 2013. Supply-side timing is partially to blame: five of the seven largest infrastructure managers closed a flagship vehicle in 2021 or 2022, and none of those five held a final close last year. As in real estate, investors shied away from core and core-plus investments in a higher yield environment. Yet there are reasons to believe infrastructure’s growth will bounce back. LPs surveyed by McKinsey remain bullish on their deployment to the asset class, and at least a dozen vehicles targeting more than $10 billion were actively fundraising as of the end of 2023. Multiple recent acquisitions of large infrastructure GPs by global multiasset-class managers also indicate marketwide conviction in the asset class’ potential.

Private markets still have work to do on diversity

Private markets firms are slowly improving their representation of females (up two percentage points over the prior year) and ethnic and racial minorities (up one percentage point). On some diversity metrics, including entry-level representation of women, private markets now compare favorably with corporate America. Yet broad-based parity remains elusive and too slow in the making. Ethnic, racial, and gender imbalances are particularly stark across more influential investing roles and senior positions. In fact, McKinsey’s research reveals that at the current pace, it would take several decades for private markets firms to reach gender parity at senior levels. Increasing representation across all levels will require managers to take fresh approaches to hiring, retention, and promotion.

Artificial intelligence generating excitement

The transformative potential of generative AI was perhaps 2023’s hottest topic (beyond Taylor Swift). Private markets players are excited about the potential for the technology to optimize their approach to thesis generation, deal sourcing, investment due diligence, and portfolio performance, among other areas. While the technology is still nascent, and few GPs can boast scaled implementations, pilot programs are already in flight across the industry, particularly within portfolio companies. Adoption seems nearly certain to accelerate throughout 2024.

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