Is Industry 4.0 the New DotCom Boom?

Posted on April 3, 2017

Fear stalks the land.  The Robot Apocalypse is nigh, destined to steal our jobs and our future.  Worse yet the machines are made elsewhere (Germany, Japan, even China) and America is being left behind in the race for manufacturing prowess.

We’ve heard this story before.  In the late 1980s, the U. S. computer memory industry had been decimated by Japanese and Korean competition.  To the Cassandras, this meant that the U.S. had forever lost the global economic race and was destined to become a second-rate power.

Nothing could have been further from the truth.  The prerequisites for U.S. global dominance of the technology world were already in place.  Within a few years, U.S. prowess in personal computers, microprocessors, and digital networking would lead to a capital investment boom and a stock market bubble not experienced since the 1920s.  Stock market fluctuations notwithstanding, the global growth of the Internet has not abated since.

For all its impact, the Internet has touched only a relatively small portion of human existence, focused primarily on media, entertainment, telecom and more recently retailing and finance.  The larger world in which we live, the world of things and physical interactions has, until now, been only lightly touched.  But that is going to change – and change in a huge way.

Imagine Amazon on Steroids

The world of digital automation is at the same stage as the internet in 1993, when the Mosaic browser was introduced and we first discovered the wonders of the World Wide Web.  The technologies are in place for a boom that will transform the global economy and, in the process, create new opportunities for better jobs and better lives.  And once again the U.S. is asserting its leadership role in developing the critical technologies.

Today Amazon utilizes highly advanced predictive analytics and automation tools that plan … read the rest

A Whiff of Inflation – M&A Valuations Lead the Way

Posted on July 17, 2014

(Originally Published on Axial Forum)

Since the 1970s, many of us have feared the threat of inflation looming just around the corner. Within the past year, economists and central bankers have led us to believe the inflation dragon has been permanently relegated to a dark hole, never to rain fire on the kingdom of men. We’re told that deflation is the real threat and that governments can continually run large deficits without reawakening the dragon. Recently, reality has intervened, however, to remind us that economists and central bankers aren’t infallible. U. S. Core CPI and global consumer prices have taken a sharp turn upward.

While this rate of price increase will have profound implications for business owners if it continues, that’s a story for another day.

Our story here affects these entrepreneurs more directly. Inflation comes as no surprise to those of us in the M&A business. We have watched for some time as the M&A market reheated and deal valuations reached levels not seen since 2007 – the peak of the financial bubble. We now have strong confirmation that this trend is not reserved solely for the megadeals on CNBC.

 

For larger deals that confirmation comes from Pitchbook which reported last week that, for the first half of 2014, average deal valuations reached an all time high of 11.5 times EBITDA.

 

 Median EBITDA Multiples for Buyouts (H1 2014)
For smaller buyouts, the story is the same. Andy Greenberg, CEO of GF DATA®, is in a unique position to understand middle market M&A pricing trends. His company maintains a very comprehensive database of actual transaction values in the sub $250 million marketplace. In our recent interview, Andy shared his perspective confirming our belief that lower middle market M&A purchase multiples have reached historically high levels over the past 12 to 18
read the rest

Investing In An Age Of Transient Competitive Advantages

Posted on August 24, 2013

John Mason – Originally Published at Seeking Alpha – Reprinted with Authors Permission

In this article I will review the book “The End of Competitive Advantage,” by Rita Gunther McGrath, published by the Harvard Business Review Press in 2013.

I like to think of myself as a “value investor.” That is, I believe that I invest in quality companies that are underpriced. In terms of the quality of the organizations I like to invest in, I look for firms that have established a competitive advantage in their industries and are earning at least a 15% return on equity, after taxes. To judge the quality of management and its staying power, I look for those organizations that have a sustainable competitive advantage, defined as earning a 15% return on equity, after taxes, for a period of five to eight years. And, to capture the fact that a stock may be underpriced, I look for a low price/earnings ratio.

Other factors that have been important in my analysis are the industry share the company achieves and protects and the stability of this share over time. Of course, these are the quantitative factors and must be supplemented by other factors, such as an examination of management, industry make-up, and governmental factors that might contribute to firm performance.

Well, starting right here, Dr. McGrath starts to eat away at this picture. For one, she argues that industry boundaries are no longer that important. She argues that “arenas” are more crucial in the modern environment. The important thing in today’s world is that there are connections between “the outcomes that particular customers want (the jobs to be done)” and “the alternative ways those outcomes might be met” (page 10). Industry lines are not the determinants of what products one should be producing and what markets they should be sold … read the rest

What Does the Fed’s Prediction of Increasing Growth Mean for Business Owners?

Posted on July 2, 2013

  (Click on Picture to Watch Video)

Last month Chairman Bernanke spoke and the markets reacted by dropping more than 5% in a few days.  Clearly he must have shared some very bad news for business owners.

Actually not!  Coming into the year many observers thought that the federal budget sequester would put the economy at risk of stalling at best and dropping back into recession at worst.  Instead the Fed now foresees annual economic growth at 2-2.5% this year, moving to as much as 3.5% by 2015.  And it’s the private sector that’s carrying the load, not government programs.

Let me say that again.  The Fed now believes that growth is going to accelerate over the next several years.  As a result the economy may not need so much artificial stimulus (QE) going forward.  The economy is no longer digging a hole; we’re back to building a foundation of real economic growth.

What does this mean for the deal business and for private companies considering M&A or corporate finance transactions?  Bottom line: there is going to be much more demand for capital to fund growth.  Unless the banks step up to the plate, which we believe is unlikely, this capital must come from private lenders and equity providers.

The good news is that there is a great deal of financial market capital available to meet this need.  We just closed a mezzanine financing that gave us a good window into the market’s current appetite.  Over the past few years, major investors have made significant financial commitments to entities designed to fill the void left by banks which have abandoned their commercial lending franchise.  As a result today there are numerous private debt providers seeking opportunities to provide senior, hybrid and mezzanine capital to private companies.  Where equity capital is needed, private equity groups are … read the rest

Living in a Low Growth World

Posted on May 16, 2013

Michael Drury, Chief Economist, McVean Trading and Investments LLC – Reprinted with Author’s Permission

Perhaps the question we are asked most frequently is when things will get back to normal, meaning in most investors’ eyes the way they were before Lehman.  Unfortunately, our answer is “That bird has flown” and we are now dealing with, and will continue to deal with for many years, a very different environment.  The mainstay of that difference is a lack of trust between those that have money to invest and those that want to use it for risky undertakings, and, in particular, a lack of trust in the banking system that used to intermediate between these two groups.  The result is a glut of savings available to “safe” investments driving risk-free yields to very low levels.  However, the central banks, by buying bonds and manipulating long term interest rates lower, are introducing a significant risk of capital loss into even “risk-free” assets.  Investors are both moving and driven out the risk and yield curves, and returns on riskier investments are falling.  The decline in returns at the precise time many investors want to start spending investment income has pushed up prices for proven existing income flows.  Meanwhile, a combination of distrust and a reduced pool of money that will wait long periods before income is produced have generated fewer green-field investments in physical plant and equipment, resulting in a slower potential growth path for the economy.

We are neither monetarist nor Keynesian, but rather institutionalist and a storyteller.  We see the current situation as the culmination of a long path where growing reliance on banks and the central bank to maintain economic growth has run aground.  Both re-establishing trust and balance in the old system or building a new one will take time – likely many years … read the rest

Winds of Change: Banking

Posted on May 8, 2013

John Mason – Originally Published at Seeking Alpha – Reprinted with Authors Permission

Another Executive Leaves JPMorgan…” reads the headline of the business section in the New York Times. The question is, what is going on at JPMorgan Chase (JPM)?

The timing of this last leaving is raising questions. The latest major departure is Frank Bisignano, the co-chief operating officer. The questions are about the status of Jamie Dimon, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of JPMorgan, the “persistent executive turnover,” and the up-coming board meeting where a debate is raging about whether or not Mr. Dimon should hold both top positions.

To me, there are two reasons for the recent departure events. First, Mr. Dimon is in control and he does not like what has happened inside JPMorgan over the past two years or so, with “the London Whale” and other events that have tarnished the “bravo” image of Mr. Dimon and his bank. The activity going on inside the bank remind me of a “turnaround” operation!’

But, there is a second reason for the things that are going on. Mr. Dimon is moving JPMorgan into the future.

If this is true, then this whole effort is to move JPMorgan into the future in the face of the “hostile” regulatory environment that exists, in the face of the changes that information technology are forcing on the banking industry, and the changing nature of the financial industry.

If I were Mr. Dimon, my feeling would be that the current regulatory environment “sucks”!

Being John Mason, my feeing is that the current regulatory environment “sucks”!

In either case, the basic feeling is that I really don’t want to run a bank. I want to run something different.

Second, whatever is being done in the financial industry, the future of commercial banking…of finance … read the rest

Winds of Change: Energy

Posted on May 6, 2013

John Mason – Originally Published at Seeking Alpha – Reprinted with Authors Permission

In my last post I wrote about all the economic re-structuring that is taking place. Even though economic growth remains relatively tepid, changes are taking place in the economy that are going to dominate the future when the economy fully adjusts.

Maybe one of the reasons that the economy is growing so slowly is that the economy is going through a transition phase, like in the 1930s, where resources have to be re-allocated and re-structured in order for the economy to take off once again.

That is, resources are mis-located now relative to what is happening in the economy. For the economy to pick up its full head of steam, resources have to be re-aligned to fit what the economy is evolving into…not what it was. Economic policies that attempt to put resources…especially labor…back into the jobs they historically held…just doesn’t work!

Therefore, as I mentioned in the previous post, this re-structuring is creating tremendous opportunities for investment. But, one has to change ones perspective…and not focus on what was. This is why I found the recent article on the future of energy by Clifford Krauss in the New York Times so refreshing. The title to the article, to me, says it all, “By 2023, A Changed World in Energy.”

“If you could close your eyes for just a moment like Rip Van Winkle, and blink them open in 2023, you might see a very different energy world.

Electric cars may be popular. Solar energy could be cheap enough that millions of households and businesses deploy solar panels to generate their power needs. Fossil fuels will probably still dominate, but most trucks and many trains could run on natural gas rather than more polluting diesel. And the United States could be … read the rest

The Winds of Change Are Blowing

Posted on May 5, 2013

John Mason – Originally Published at Seeking Alpha – Reprinted with Author’s Permission

The world is changing. The world is changing because it must change. When the unemployment rate hits 27 percent, as it now stands in Spain, something more is going on than just a business cycle.

Unemployment is also above 27 percent in Greece. In Italy, the unemployment rate is close to 12 percent. In France, the unemployment rate is above 10 percent. The employment problems in these countries are not just cyclical, they are structural.

The same for the United States. Although the unemployment rate in the United States is under 8 percent, the startling figure concerning the U.S. labor market is that the labor participation rate has dropped below 64 percent, a figure not reached since the latter part of the 1970s when women were not as big a part of the workforce as they are now.

These structural forces are causing divisions between countries as the world tries to recover from the Great Recession and more. Angela Merkel, German Chancellor, “highlights eurozone divisions.” The unemployment rate in Germany is 5.4 percent.

But, as we know, the utilization of capital in the western world tends to be lower now, for this stage in the business cycle, that at any other time in the past fifty years. Western countries are not only not using the human capital that is available; it is not using the physical capital it possesses. The competitiveness of the eurozone is an issue that comes up over and over again.

Phillip Stephens writes in the Financial Times about The New Deal for Europe: More Reform, Less Austerity. “High unemployment in Europe is not just a reflection of recession. It often mirrors ossified labor markets that lock out young people and discourage investment and innovation.”

But … read the rest

Will a Superabundance of Capital Lead to an M&A Boom?

Posted on February 17, 2013

Authored by John Mason

“Bain & Company, the consultancy, forecasts a ‘superabundance of capital’ between now and 2020. In a recent report it argued that markets would be distorted by surpluses in Asian and Middle Eastern countries and private investment funds.

“It estimates that the world’s financial assets will outbalance its domestic product by ten to one – it will have $900 trillion of financial assets compared with $90 trillion of GDP – by 2020. The result will be a ‘world that is structurally awash in capital’ chasing few opportunities.

“‘Capital superabundance will increase the frequency, intensity, size and longevity of asset bubbles. The propensity for bubbles to form will be magnified as yield-hungry investors race to put capital into assets that show the potential to generate superior returns,’ the report concludes.”

These words from John Gapper appeared over the weekend in the Financial Times of London.

The signs of this possibility, according to Gapper, are two: first, the presence of lots and lots of cash on the balance sheets of corporations, hedge funds, and other financial interests; and second, the apparent movement in the buyout and acquisition market that reflects a growing belief among international investors that the US economy is stabilizing, the eurozone crisis has reached its final stages, and that elsewhere in the world economic recovery continues and capital flows are increasing. Apparently with these events, the desire to take on more risk has risen.

I have written for three years or so about the build up of cash on the balance sheets of corporations. Companies that never had issued long-term debt before took advantage of exceedingly low interest rates to increase their cache of money. The basic reasoning behind this buildup was that these financially sound firms would “make a killing” as the United States economy began to grow faster … read the rest

Dell Deal: A Sign Of The Future?

Posted on February 9, 2013

Authored by John Mason

Things are changing in the financial markets. Financial institutions are starting to make money again in mortgages. Money market funds are “flush with cash.” Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) and Collateralized Loan Obligations (CLOs) are staging a comeback.

And, now there is the $24 billion deal by Michael Dell to take his company private. The interpretation of this transaction that I am most interested in is the one being mentioned in almost all the stories coming out in the press: “This is the largest corporate privatization since the financial crisis and the largest tech buyout ever.”

I am not interested so much in whether or not Dell, Inc. (DELL) is eventually saved. What I am interested in is what is happening in finance. It appears as if money is being mobilized again.

Goodness knows, the Federal Reserve has done just about everything it can to push money out into the economy. Comedians have gotten serious about QE1 and QE2 and QE3 … and QEfinity!

It has only been in the past six months or so that there has been any evidence of funds creeping out of the commercial banking system into other parts of the economy. But now, evidence seems to be growing of money flowing into other parts of the economy. This latest transaction, the creation of a large buyout deal, with the growing possibility that others are thinking about more deals, or even mergers and acquisitions, is very encouraging.

Over the past couple of years, myself and others have wondered about all the cash being built up in the coffers of large corporations. It seemed as if these large organizations were piling up cash hoards in preparation for moving in on less well-off institutions and making deals while the getting was good and while interest … read the rest

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