Blackstone is believed to be in the advanced stages of planning an initial public offering (IPO) of a minority stake, perhaps 10%. Though it would not be the first bulge-bracket buy-out shop to embrace the marketKohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR) has listed a fund in Europe, for instanceit would be the first to float the main management company. Predicting its value is not easy given Blackstones broad range of businesses, encompassing hedge funds, property and advisory arms, as well as leveraged buy-outs of public companies. Appraisals range from $20 billion to double that. Blackstones managers, perhaps inspired by Mr Stewarts I Dont Want To Talk About It, are keeping mum.
The move is steeped in irony. Mr Schwarzman has derided public ownership, calling stockmarkets overrated, and bashed the Sarbanes-Oxley act, which clamps corporate-governance manacles on listed firms. One blogger described his conversion as the most unlikely...since Saul of Tarsus fell off his horse en route to Damascus. But his supporters see no hypocrisy at all: Blackstones bosses know the value of public markets only too well, since they need them to buy back the companies in its portfolio when they want to cash in their gains.
Nor is the news particularly surprising. The successful IPO last month by Fortress, a hedge fund and private-equity firm, showed that there is plenty of demand for alternative assets among small investors whose access to private markets is restricted. Before that, big private-equity groups such as Texas Pacific and Carlyle were mulling similar moves. They will watch Blackstones progress closely, just as Wall Streets investment-banking partnerships studied Bear Stearns when it went public in 1985.
But Blackstones model is more likely to be Goldman Sachs, which has thrived, and retained much of its partnership mystique, since floating its shares in 1999. It may hope to use shares as a currency with which to reward its 750 employees, as Goldman has so generously done. A listing may also allow a new generation of managers to come forward, as the old guard loosens its grip. Blackstone is stuffed with over-achieving 20- and 30-somethings, such as Jonathan Gray, who masterminded the recent $39 billion takeover of Equity Office Properties.
Few doubt that the clearest winners would be Blackstones owners and the tight group of senior managers around them. A listing would allow them to extract and diversify some of the value tied up in the company. Mr Schwarzman could free up part of his stake, thought to be 40%, without losing control. He may, however, lose the respect of some of Blackstones limited partners, the institutions and wealthy individuals who invest in buy-out funds, if the move is construed as a brazen attempt to cash out at the top of the market. He and other private-equity bosses have acknowledged that the good times cannot last forever. Blackstones returns last year and the year before topped 100%, unsustainable in any industry.
Indeed, the limited partners would have few reasons to celebrate an IPO. They would suffer if Blackstone came under pressure from the market to support returns by raising its already plump fees. Some of them might decide to stop investing in its funds and buy its stock instead, retaining exposure without having to hand over a 1-1.5% management fee and 20% of investment gains.
Blackstone itself might discover drawbacks too. It would have to disclose more informationlawyers argue over how muchand it would be shackled by what Mr Schwarzman has called the tyranny of quarterly earnings. On the other hand, greater transparency might reduce the pressure from critics of private equity, who caricature the industry as a destructive force, stripping assets in the shadows.
Josh Lerner of Harvard Business School points to two other potential problems, one caused by too much liquidity, the other by too little. A public Blackstone would have to learn to live with fickle small investors, who, unlike the current crop, could sell at the first sign of trouble. And the stockmarket may fail to appreciate the lumpiness of the firms earnings. Private-equity gains are realised at irregular intervals, when holdings are sold. This is one reason why KKRs listed fund trades below its net asset value.
So, as admired as Blackstone is, a public offering would bring new risks. But for those who have built the firm up to its giddy heights, the rewards must seem more palpable. If stockmarkets keep their composure in the run-up to the flotation, and credit markets remain benign, Mr Schwarzmans next birthday bash mayRod willingbe treated to a storming version of Some Guys Have All The Luck.
The Economist Newspaper Limited 2007