Private equity firms are now for sale

April 4, 2011, 8:34 PM UTC

Buyout firms looking to cash in on their brand equity have either gone public or sold shares to a sovereign wealth fund. Now, there’s an alternative.

PIMCO boss Mohamed El-Erian last week confirmed reports that firm employees were buying and selling equity via SecondMarket, the private online marketplace for alternative assets. Now it seems that PIMCO is just the tip of a much larger iceberg.

Jeremy Smith, chief strategy officer for SecondMarket, tells Fortune that his company has launched an entire new program focused on asset managers. Its initial targets are large private equity firms, including those who may plan to follow Apollo Global Management (APO) and others into the public markets. It also could work for venture capital or real estate partnerships.

Smith would not confirm that PIMCO was a client — even after the El-Erian admission — but did say that “multiple” firms already are using the platform. He also said that the asset management firms have been more transparent with prospective investors than have been many of the private Internet companies for which SecondMarket is best known.

All of this basically means that there is now a third liquidity option for asset management firms, who previously either had to go public or sell large equity blocks to state pension funds or sovereign wealth funds (like TPG Capital did last week). At the same time, it also could lead to greater scrutiny of the private secondary markets in Washington, D.C., where regulators already are asking plenty of questions…