Carlyle Group Wants to Make You the Next Mitt Romney

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The normally secretive private equity industry spent 2012 in the spotlight thanks to Mitt Romney‘s ill-fated presidential run, and some of these firms appear to be capitalizing on all the free press they received — literally.

That’s right, the publicly traded private equity firm Carlyle Group — whose funds were once open only to the mega-rich — is now allowing the merely well-off to get in on the action. A report out this week in the Wall Street Journal says that Carlyle will soon begin accepting investments as low as $50,000 — through an intermediary called Central Park Group — into its main buyout funds. This decision comes after other publicly traded private equity firms, like KKR and Blackstone, announced funds for less-wealthy investors, though Carlyle’s distinguishes itself by being the first to lower the bar for entry to its main turnaround projects.

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To invest, you still have to be what the SEC defines as an accredited investor: someone with $1 million in wealth above and beyond home equity. According to the Journal, Carlyle made the move in order to attract what it estimates is $10 trillion in wealth represented by investors who are wealthy enough to be accredited, but not rich enough to meet the $5 million minimum investment threshold previously needed to invest in their funds.

This may represent an great opportunity for Carlyle to get it’s hands on a broader swath of wealth, but it may not end up being a great deal for new investors. After all, Carlyle and other private equity firms make much of their money charging investors a management fee, so the more money in their funds, the more profit they make. But of late, private equity firms have seen their funds lose money at a faster rate than they can bring it in, putting their bottom lines at risk.

So you have to ask yourself, if the ultrarich don’t think these funds are a great investment, why should you stash your extra $50,000 with them?

In addition, the fee structure for these new, less-wealthy investors is going to be more onerous. According to Richard Beales of Reuters: 

“The new fund is to be run by a unit of Central Park Group, an alternative investment manager. That spares Carlyle the hassle of dealing with smaller investors, but means they face an extra layer of charges. On top of the roughly 1.5 percent management fee and 20 percent of gains that [Carlyle] reaps, Central Park will charge investors 1.8 percent in annual fees and up to 0.75 percent in expenses. That adds up to about 4 percent of assets plus 20 percent of gains – steep even before a sales load that could run as high as 3.5 percent upfront.”

And these high fees are going to be tacked on to an investment that may not pan out in the end anyway. Private equity is a difficult industry to analyze, because most firms are very hush-hush about their performance. A recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper attempted to measure the average return of private equity funds and found that, on-average, after fees, these funds do beat the market by 3% per year. But performance varies widely from fund to fund, and the extra fees Carlyle is charging smaller investors could be the difference between beating and lagging behind the broader market.

Which is to say, you should always be wary when big-time Wall Streeters come asking for money from the hoi polloi. As a wise man once said, if you look around the poker table, and you can’t spot the patsy, you’re it.

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