In purchasing a US$1.9bn portfolio of investments from Bank of America, AXA Private Equity closed “one of the largest secondary private equity transactions in history,” it said today. The deal came only a few days after the French group took over funds worth US$718m from Natixis in a similar “secondary” deal.

The market for secondary buyouts is a rare bright spot in the private equity industry. According to Preqin, a data provider, the value of such buyouts in the first quarter of this year, US$7bn, surpassed the total for the whole of 2009 (US$5.1bn). AXA’s deals will boost these totals, as will a raft of other secondary buyouts announced recently.

Private equity firms sell portfolios to each other at a discount, suggesting that the need to boost liquidity is as pressing as the search for returns. Thankfully for sellers, the average bid from secondary buyers was 72% of net asset value in the second half of last year, up from only 40% in the first half, according to the latest data from Cogent Partners, an investment bank. The price paid by AXA for Bank of America’s portfolio was not disclosed.

Facing limited opportunities to exit investments via stockmarket listings or sales to trade buyers, private equity firms are looking to each other for help (at a price). As The Economist put it recently, “if you are looking for a way out, don’t forget the way you came in.”