Who wants AXA Private Equity?

September 29, 2011: 10:31 AM ET

AXA Private Equity is on the block. There are several likely suitors.

The big private equity story right now is that insurance giant AXA is shopping its $28 billion private equity unit. AXA Private Equity does a whole lot of everything, including mid-cap LBOs, co-investments, funds-of-funds, secondaries, mezzanine and infrastructure. Some of the money it manages is for AXA, but the majority comes from third-party investors. So this is a bit like when AlpInvest went on the block, except a bit smaller and with a more diverse investor base.

I spent part of yesterday talking with industry folks about potential buyers, albeit not anyone directly involved in the process (which is being managed by Credit Suisse). Here's my stab at playing oddsmaker:

Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. (3:1)
"They are definitely looking and interested," says one source. And it makes a lot of sense. The keys to publicly-traded PE are twofold: Diversity and recurring revenue. AXA would give KKR (KKR) a bunch of business practices it doesn't currently have, and would increase its assets under management by around 46%. Plus, it could use a big splash as North American fundraising slogs alone.

Carlyle Group (5:1)
I hear Carlyle also has a team looking at AXA PE, perhaps in an effort to put more distance between itself and Blackstone. Maybe that becomes Carlyle's IPO pitch: "We're better because we're (much) bigger." Carlyle also has recent experience integrating a large group (AlpInvest). The caveats here are that Carlyle did just pay out for AlpInvest, and it doesn't need AXA from a business line standpoint.

BlackRock (8:1)
Yes, the Rock not the Stone. BlackRock (BLK) has been expanding its alternatives group of late, including in private equity. This would be a giant step toward that goal, a not-so-gentle poke from Larry Fink at rival Schwarzman and something that is easily affordable.

Blackstone Group (9:1)
Blackstone (BX) has been acquisitive on the public equities side, and there is no way they aren't looking if both Carlyle and KKR are nosing around. Plus, it could certainly use the likely stock price bump.

The Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (10:1)
Canada's largest pension fund came up twice yesterday, although it doesn't make too much sense to me. The Caisse has been pushing for more direct private equity investment and less indirect, but AXA has a lot of both. In fact, it bought more than $6 billion worth of secondary interests in the past two years alone (AXA corporate trying to increase the value of the PE business in advance of a sale?).

Onex (15:1)
This is the other Canadian player I'm hearing. Obviously it's possible – as are a number of firms not on this list – but I see them more as driving up the price for someone else rather than the ultimate winner.

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