Are private equity ‘clubs’ back?

FORTUNE — Before the financial markets went to hell in a securitized handbasket, private equity firms regularly partnered with each other on the same transactions. These so-called “club deals” sometimes included as many as seven firms, and were a way for private equity to purchase larger and larger companies (while reducing possible competition). In fact, of the 25 largest leveraged buyouts completed between 2005 and 2008, 17 featured three or more private equity sponsors.

Over the past few years, however, club deals seem to have fallen out of favor. In discussing the matter last week at a Thomson Reuters conference in Boston, Carlyle Group (CG) co-founder David Rubenstein said:

“You won’t see as many PE firms teaming up with each other as you did before. Today, what investors want is to co-invest. They want to go into a fund, but co-invest additional capital — no fee, no carry — and since so many large investors have that interest, they are now going to GPs like us and saying ‘If you have a big deal, don’t call up one of your brethren in the private equity world. Call us up.”

I’ve heard similar statements from other private equity executives, and it isn’t only about LP co-investment. Other factors include the relatively poor performance of large club deals, plus CEO complaints that too many sponsors can gum up the internal communication and decision-making works. And it doesn’t hurt that the current lack of club deals may weaken a pending class action lawsuit over private equity bid-rigging.

But now there is reason to wonder if this anti-club sentiment is less about principled investment strategy and more about a dearth of large LBO opportunities.

Reuters reports that four private equity firms are working together on a possible $12 billion bid for genetic testing equipment maker Life Technologies (LIFE), which also expects a takeover offer from Thermo Fisher Scientific (TMO). Among the clubbed quartet is, you guessed it, The Carlyle Group.

To be sure, Rubenstein wasn’t speaking in absolutes. There are exceptions to any rule, counter-examples to any trend. And it’s entirely possible that Life Technologies may include both multiple private equity sponsors and significant co-investment opportunities.

Life Technologies, however, is not a solo outlier. The Blackstone Group (BX) brought two smaller private equity firms into its possible $25 billion offer for Dell Inc. (DELL), and also is said to be searching for a strategic technology partner. All this after originally trying to partner with fellow mega-firm TPG Capital and, from what I hear, previously asking to participate alongside Silver Lake Partners (which demurred). And wasn’t there going to be a club for Best Buy (BBY), until potential lenders laughed them out of the room?

In other words, we’ll do big clubs if we can buy big companies. Kind of like what we saw back in 2005-2008, just at significantly lower volume.

I’m not suggesting that private equity executives like Rubenstein don’t believe their arguments against club deals. Simply that they may be fooling themselves. And their investors.

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