Could Kohlberg Kravis Roberts lose its crown? When the US private equity group bought Safeway (US) in 1986, the subsequent $7bn-odd profit set a global record. But now investors at Japan's Shinsei bank might possibly trump this. Back in 2000 these investors, partly led by Ripplewood, paid $1bn for the bank. They floated a third of this last year for $2.4bn, and will sell another chunk for $2.8bn leaving them with a remaining stake currently worth some $2.6bn.
Unsurprisingly, this has thrilled the global private equity world. But do not expect this deal to be replicated too widely in Japan. As with the Safeway deal, the Shinsei pickings reflect the project's pioneering nature. In particular, the initial purchase price was low because the government was desperate to sell, deeply embarrassed about the bad loan mess and faced American pressure for reform. However, those factors are no longer in place. Consequently, the government has notably not offered similar deals when other large banks, like Resona, have faced problems.
That does not mean Japan's private equity market is dead: political and corporate pressure for company divestments is rising, which is triggering a modest stream of deals. However, returns are mixed and reform progress is patchy. Witness the Mitsubishi group's continued - misguided - efforts to prop up the ailing Mitsubishi Motors. Shinsei may yet break records; but, in overall private equity terms, Japan remains a long way behind America.
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