The Private Equity Limited Partnership Agreement Release: The Industry’s Snowden Moment

Last week, the Wall Street Journal released an important story that chronicled how the private equity industry kingpin KKR systematically took advantage of its credulous investors via taking questionable charges through its related company KKR Capstone. That story depended critically on the Wall Street Journal obtaining the terms of the investment from a 2006 KKR limited partnership agreement so that it could ascertain whether the investors had authorized these charges. Readers may recall that the private industry heretofore has kept these contracts under lock and key, insisting zealously that they be kept in the strictest confidence possible by those who obtain access to them.

We’ve published 12 private equity limited partnership agreements (LPAs), including the KKR limited partnership agreement that key to the Wall Street Journal’s story, in a searchable format that you can view here and here. We obtained the documents through the Pennsylvania Treasury’s public e-contracts library. Until now, it appears virtually no one knew that they had been made public. And you can be sure that if anyone associated with the private equity industry had recognized what had occurred, they would have shut this window immediately.

It is hard to overstate the significance of Pennsylvania’s release of these private equity limited partnership agreements. This development will change the industry forever. Even a superficial reading of these documents shows that investors and policy-makers were naive to treat private equity general partners as deserving of the blind trust they had placed in them.

Trade Secret? What Trade Secret?

For decades, private equity (PE) firms have asserted that limited partnership agreements (LPAs), the contracts between themselves and investors, should be treated in their entirety as trade secrets, and therefore not subject to disclosure under Freedom of Information Act laws in any jurisdiction. These private equity general partners argued that the information in their contracts was so sensitive that it needed to be shielded from competitors’ eyes, otherwise their unique, critically important know-how would be appropriated and used against them. In particular, PE firms have made frequent, forceful claims that their limited partnership agreements provide valuable insight into their investment strategies. The industry took the position that these documents were as valuable to them as the formula for Coca-Cola or the schematics for Intel’s next microprocessor chip.

Now that we can look at the actual language in limited partnership agreements, we can see what any sophisticated user of legal instruments would guess: the PE firm lawyers describe the strategy in the broadest, most general terms to give the private equity fund as much latitude as possible. For example, here is the investment strategy language from the KKR 2006 Fund:

2.1 Objectives The objective and policy of the Partnership are to invest in (i) Securities of Persons formed to effect or which are the subject of management buyouts or build-ups sponsored by the General Partner or any Affiliate thereof and (ii) Securities of Persons the investment in which the General Partner reasonably expects to generate a return on investment commensurate with the returns typically achieved in previous KKR-sponsored buyouts, build-ups and growth equity investments.

Claiming this statement is a trade secret is analogous to the U.S. Navy claiming classified status for the fact that it operates ships on oceans.

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