Carlyle returned a record $15bn to investors during the first nine months of 2011, an amount equal to the combined payments made by private equity rivals Blackstone, KKR and TPG during the same period.

The bumper return is particularly striking as Carlyle is planning to list on the stock market as soon as market conditions for initial public offerings improve. One of the main metrics by which private equity firms are valued is the size of assets under management.

After Carlyle’s $15bn return, the group still raised assets under management from $107bn at the end of last year to around $148bn, a level partly boosted by acquisitions.

Carlyle was able to exit investments to return cash to investors early in the year before market conditions deteriorated in recent months as the eurozone crisis intensified.

“Other private equity firms had more pessimistic views of the world in the beginning of 2011,” a top investor in many big private equity funds said. “So they should have been more aggressive in taking advantage of market windows to cash out. But they did not. Nobody was as aggressive as Carlyle in returning money to investors.”

According to letters sent to investors and seen by the Financial Times, Carlyle returned $15bn while TPG gave investors $4bn in the first nine months of the year. Meanwhile on recent earnings calls, Blackstone and KKR executives said they had returned $6bn and $5bn respectively.

Carlyle’s exits this year include stock sales of China Pacific Insurance, which raised $2.7bn, and Kinder Morgan, the US energy group that raised $1.5bn. It also sold stakes in companies such as Dunkin Brands, and sold firms such as Moncler, an Italian maker of high end sportswear to a strategic buyer.

In its third quarter end letter to its investors Carlyle noted: “We are not forced sellers and we maintain the flexibility to exit our investments at our discretion. We have historically chosen the ‘right’ time to exit.”

Carlyle’s ability to returns funds to investors is aided by its structure. It operates dozens of funds targeted at individual geographic regions and sectors, which has enabled it to seize on local market windows when they appear.

However, adept it has been at exploiting those opportunities, Carlyle has been less nimble in the timing of its own public debut, in part because of the length of time it has taken to do the preliminary work. It is waiting for equity markets to improve before pressing ahead with its IPO.

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