The global spread of COVID-19 spurred interest in the idea of a “new normal” during the second quarter of 2020 as people locked down their lives and adjusted to remote work, school, and entertainment.1 The financial markets were hardly immune. Public markets reacted with sharp volatility while the pandemic cast a sudden chill over the red-hot private equity business. Transaction volume fell significantly in the second quarter, and private equity managers (General Partners or GPs) turned their attention to tending existing portfolio companies. Over the summer, investors (Limited Partners or LPs) were left in limbo to speculate on how it would all shake out.

It is a market in transition, with the final contours yet to be determined…

As the uncertainty ebbed, life returned to the moribund industry. Deal value soared in Q3, very nearly doubling from the same period a year earlier. The situation stabilized further in Q4, as strong activity in the Asia Pacific region resulted in aggregate global deal value of approximately $536 billion for the year 2020, just between the global deal values for the two preceding years.2 The new normal—it seemed—would be much like the old one, albeit with more Zoom calls.

Or would it? Anybody passing through Southeast Asia has heard the expression “same same but different.” It may sound nonsensical to the uninitiated but these four words are capable of nuanced meaning.3 Purposefully vague, this phrase can prove surprisingly useful, conveniently allowing the user to brush off arguments and move conversations along. It can also be used to highlight—rather than obscure—subtle differences. 

Any conversation about liquidity in private markets tends to focus on the secondary market. Although they are an important cog and unquestionably add liquidity to private markets, secondaries are a familiar piece of a much grander puzzle. New exchanges and platforms are proving popular. Retail access is expanding. Blockchain is coming. This is a market in transition, with the final contours yet to be determined.

Private markets may look familiar in another 10 years, but any resemblance to the past is likely to be superficial. Beneath the surface, the industry is busily adapting its business models and operational infrastructure to capitalize on multi-faceted opportunities presenting themselves as the business becomes more liquid. Same same. But different.

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The Investment Manager Services division is an internal business unit of SEI Investments Company. This information is provided for education purposes only and is not intended to provide legal or investment advice. SEI does not claim responsibility for the accuracy or reliability of the data provided. Information provided by SEI Global Services, Inc.

1 Google Trends, Search term: “new normal”; accessed December 2020.
2 S&P Global Market Intelligence, 2021 Global Private Equity Outlook, March 2, 2021.
3 Chris Wotton, “‘Same Same, But Different’: The Origins of Thailand’s Tourist Catchphrase,” Culture Trip, January 9, 2019.