The History of Private Equity and Venture Capital

Investors have been acquiring businesses and making minority investments in privately held companies since the dawn of the industrial revolution. Merchant bankers in London and Paris financed industrial concerns in the 1850s; most notably Credit Mobilier, founded in 1854 by Jacob and Isaac Pereire, who together with New York-based Jay Cooke financed the United States Transcontinental Railroad.

Later, J. Pierpont Morgan’s J.P. Morgan & Co. would finance railroads and other industrial companies throughout the United States. In certain respects, J. Pierpont Morgan’s 1901 acquisition of Carnegie Steel Company from Andrew Carnegie and Henry Phipps for $480 million represents the first true major buyout as they are thought of today.
Due to structural restrictions imposed on American banks under the Glass-Steagall Act and other regulations in the 1930s, there was no private merchant banking industry in the United States, a situation that was quite exceptional in developed nations. As late as the 1980s, Lester Thurow, a noted economist, decried the inability of the financial regulation framework in the United States to support merchant banks. US investment banks were confined primarily to advisory businesses, handling mergers and acquisitions transactions and placements of equity and debt securities. Investment banks would later enter the space, however long after independent firms had become well established.
With few exceptions, private equity in the first half of the 20th century was the domain of wealthy individuals and families. The Vanderbilts, Whitneys, Rockefellers and Warburgs were notable investors in private companies in the first half of the century. In 1938, Laurance S. Rockefeller helped finance the creation of both Eastern Air Lines and Douglas Aircraft and the Rockefeller family had vast holdings in a variety of companies. Eric M. Warburg founded E.M. Warburg & Co. in 1938, which would ultimately become Warburg Pincus, with investments in both leveraged buyouts and venture capital.