Sir Richard Branson once said that the quickest way to become a millionaire was to take a billion dollars and buy an airline. But, as EnerVest Ltd, a Houston-based private equity firm that focuses on energy investments, recently found out, there's more than one way to go broke investing in extremely volatile sectors.
As the Wall Street Journal points out today, EnerVest is a $2 billion private-equity fund that borrowed heavily at the height of the oil boom to scoop up oil and gas wells. Unfortunately, shortly after those purchases were made, energy prices plunged leaving the fund's equity, supplied primarily by pensions, endowments and charitable foundations, worth essentially nothing.
The outcome will leave investors in the 2013 fund with, at most, pennies for every dollar they invested, the people said. At least one investor, the Orange County Employees Retirement System, already has marked its investment down to zero, according to a pension document.
Though private-equity investments regularly flop, industry consultants and fund investors say this situation could mark the first time that a fund larger than $1 billion has lost essentially all of its value.
EnerVest’s collapse shows how debt taken on during the drilling boom continues to haunt energy investors three years after a glut of fuel sent prices spiraling down.
But, at least John Walker, EnerVest’s co-founder and chief executive, expressed some remorse for investors by confirming to the WSJ that they “are not proud of the result.”
All of which leaves EnerVest with the rather unflattering honor of being perhaps the only private equity fund in history to ever raise over $1 billion in capital from investors and subsequently lose pretty much 100% of it.
Only seven private-equity funds larger than $1 billion have ever lost money for investors, according to investment firm Cambridge Associates LLC. Among those of any size to end in the red, losses greater than 25% or so are almost unheard of, though there are several energy-focused funds in danger of doing so, according to public pension records.
EnerVest has attempted to restructure the fund, as well as another raised in 2010 that has struggled with losses, to meet repayment demands from lenders who were themselves writing down the value of assets used as collateral, according to public pension documents and people familiar with the efforts.
So, who's getting wiped out? Oh, the usual list of pension funds, charities and university endowments.
A number of prominent institutional investors are at risk of having their investments wiped out, including Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, Canada’s second-largest pension, which invested more than $100 million. Florida’s largest pension fund manager and the Western Conference of Teamsters Pension Plan, a manager of retirement savings for union members in nearly 30 states, each invested $100 million, according to public records.
The fund was popular among charitable organizations as well. The J. Paul Getty Trust, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur and Fletcher Jones foundations each invested millions in the fund, according to their tax filings.
Michigan State University and a foundation that supports Arizona State University also have disclosed investments in the fund.
Luckily, we're somewhat confident that at least the losses accrued by U.S.-based pension funds will be ultimately be backstopped by taxpayers...so no harm no foul.