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
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2013 Deal Valuations Reach All Time Highs; What’s in Store for 2014?

Posted on February 3, 2014

  Last March we predicted that middle market business sale values in 2013 could reach all-time high levels. Recent data from Pitchbook confirms that was in fact the case.

Source: Pitchbook

Not only were prices in relation to earnings before interest and taxes (EBITDA) at an all-time high, leverage used in the transactions reached record levels as well. To some extent this reflects a skewing toward larger transactions, but unquestionably we are now back to levels not seen since the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis. History tells us that such heady price levels will not last forever.

So what is in store for 2014? Does weakness in global stock markets mean that the game is over? Or can we look forward to a sustained period of high valuations? Is the past is to be our guide, the current favorable trends in the M&A market have some time to run. We previously indicated that we felt market strength could run through 2014. Recently we have received confirmation of that through a uniquely qualified source.

IntraLinks is the global leader in virtual data rooms with a 30% worldwide market share. For the uninitiated a virtual data room is an online space in which due diligence documents can be securely placed during an M&A process to facilitate due diligence and other deal related activities. As a result IntraLinks has a unique perspective on the merger and acquisition marketplace. They see deals that are moving toward closing as much as six months before any public announcement of the transaction is made. IntraLinks has aggregated this proprietary business intelligence to read the rest

Mid-Year 2013 Middle Market M&A Review

Posted on August 26, 2013

Q4-2012 was a heady time for the M&A business and almost every observer of the industry expected 2013 to be the year the deals business broke out of its five year post financial crisis funk. Best laid plans and all that — the low level of deal activity that has occurred to date in 2013 has both surprised and disappointed most industry participants.  Yet there are signs that this could change.

During H1-2013, deal volume fell off significantly, reflecting a cleared pipeline after the year end burst.  Fortune reported that global M&A announcements for Q2-2013 were the slowest since Q3-2009.  The U. S. market fared comparatively better, with the dollar value of announced deals up 34% year to year in H1 2013.  European activity on the other hand collapsed 43% with the Euro crisis and continental recession still in full swing at the time.  Even the relatively high level of U. S. activity depended in great part on the announcement of two large deals (Heinz and Dell) at the beginning of the year.  Without those announcements the U. S. market would have appeared lackluster at best.

The middle market companies we represent depend on both strategic and private equity buyers for business exits.  Most M&A industry observers believe that bulging corporate coffers and slow, organic growth will eventually dictate a strong increase in strategic M&A activity.  With the exception of a few target sectors, particularly IT related businesses, this corporate gold rush has yet to materialize.  As a result, private equity will be a more important source of buyside demand, at least for the near future.

PitchBook publishes a comprehensive analysis of U. S. private equity activity. Their first-half summary tells the story:

“Dealmakers were optimistic heading into 2013, anticipating one of the most active years for private equity (PE) investment since the financial … 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

New Data Drives M&A Valuations to Cyclically High Levels

Posted on October 2, 2012

 

Recently the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled “The Economy Stole My Retirement”. The subcaption reads “Nest Eggs In Peril For Millions Of Entreprenuers in Their 60s And 70s Who Can’t Sell Their Companies”.

Over the years we have met many business owners who just assumed that if they waited long enough a perfect buyer would come along, offer them a great price for their business and pave the way for a timely and comfortable retirement. According to the Wall Street Journal article “Boomer entrepreneurs grew up believing in the American dream that you start a business and eventually sell it for a good return or pass it on to your kids.”

With stagnant revenues and declining profits the norm for many small businesses since the financial crisis, the sad fact is that for many business owners there just won’t be a buyer.  Even worse far too many business owners who receive a serious offer for their firms will make the fatal mistake of assuming that, if they received one good offer, they will receive more and have the luxury of waiting until sale is more convenient or the price is higher.  Many of those owners will regret that decision dearly.

After three+ years of economic recovery, we are at a point in the financial cycle that may soon provide many Baby Boomer business owners with the best opportunity they may see for selling their businesses at a good valuation. For good companies in many industries, earnings have in fact recovered significantly. In favored sectors such as aerospace manufacturing and various technology disciplines, buyers are willing to pay multiples for top performers that compare favorably with those of the mid 2000s when large middle market firms routinely saw offers in high single-digit or even double digit multiples of EBITDA.

Memories … read the rest

August 2012 – The Future of Small Business Financing

Posted on August 23, 2012

Everyone loves small business.

At least that’s what the politicians want you to believe.

The reality is different. Small business is under attack from every quarter. Government policies favor large banks and large multinational businesses. Credit is tight and the banks favor the larger borrowers. Increased regulations stifle innovation and protect large incumbents that can afford teams of lawyers and lobbyists.

What’s the little guy to do? Waiting for the politicians to change the system is wishful thinking. Smart business people find ways to prosper in every environment.


And the current environment is not great for small firms. The Federal Reserve Senior Loan Officer survey has recently confirmed what we have suspected for some time: banks have been more generous in easing underwriting requirements for larger companies than they have been for smaller companies. Paynet, which maintains data on 17 million small business loans, reports that lending conditions for small firms have deteriorated in recent months after two years of bounce back from the 2009 bottom.  For additional details go to the full article on Capital Matters.


Financial Market Risk
And there’s a risk that things could get a lot worse for businesses that don’t tie down their financing soon.  We just published an article on Seeking Alpha that has received a great deal of attention with more than 14,400 page views so far. Our thesis is that the Fed’s zero interest rate policy has led to a situation where longer term treasury bonds are trading at yield levels that provide a spread to inflation far below the historical norms. Markets eventually return to their mean and often overshoot it so there is growing risk in the longer term debt market. Our concern is two-fold. First, that individual investors need to be aware of the potential impact of this return to the mean … read the rest

U. S. Small Businesses Heading Into Choppy Waters

Posted on August 9, 2012


Source: Paynet

Small business lending has grown steadily since the end of the recession.  The Thomson Reuters/PayNet index focuses on loans to borrowers with total indebtedness under $1 million.  In a related story it was reported that preliminary June data not reflected in the chart above shows a sharp 5% drop in small business lending.  The article paints a rather gloomy picture for small businesses and the economy as a whole.

PayNet President William Phelan explained, “Businesses and bankers should prepare for more slowdown. Now might be the time to consider adding capital. Credit supply is high and interest rates are incredibly low.” Phelan added “banks should strengthen credit quality to prepare for further slowdown. Stress Tests show that a full blown recession means small business failures could triple.”

According to Paynet the Thomson Reuters/PayNet Small Business Lending Index (SBLI) measures the volume of new commercial loans and leases to small businesses indexed so that January 2005 equals 100.  Because small businesses generally respond to changes in economic conditions more rapidly than larger businesses do, the SBLI serves as a leading indicator of the economy. The index is a highly correlated leading indicator of the GDP by 2 to 5 months.

There is some good news in the report.  Small businesses have been steadily improving their balance sheets since the beginning of the recession and loan delinquencies are at historically very low levels, with severe delinquencies much lower than 2005 the first year for which data is available.  However, the report goes on to say that small business investment rates are lower than in 2005 as companies pay down debt and build cash.  Banks are under-loaned with loan to deposit ratios of 60-70% and are competing hard for the few high quality loans that are available.  While businesses are being cautious in this difficult … read the rest

January Video Newsletter

Posted on January 26, 2012

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Will Business Owners Hit the Bid in 2012?

Posted on January 24, 2012

Over the years one of the best indicators of M&A activity has been what I call the Free Lunch Index. I live in Memphis, normally not a hotbed of middle market M&A activity.  That’s why my practice is national in scope.  When banks or private equity groups do come to town looking for deals, I often get a call for lunch, breakfast or coffee.

Since the crash in 2008 it’s been fairly lonely out here and I pretty much buy my own lunches. Starting this month, however, I’ve seen a marked pickup in calls and lunch invitations.  The word appears to be out among both the private equity groups and the financial institutions that now is the time to get back into the market and they’re actually spending money to look for deals.

Our experience at Focus indicates that business sale interest has increased strongly since yearend. Apparently we are not alone.  Cyprium Partners, a leading mezzanine financing specialist, recently completed a survey of 175 investment-banking firms throughout the U. S.  Among their findings, 44% of respondents reported more assignments signed or in the market than at a comparable time in 2010.  56% reported that new business pitches were up and less than 10% of the firms reported lower activity.  Bottom line the M&A business is improving and that’s consistent with our belief that the overall economy will surprise to the upside.

It’s no secret that the U. S. private equity industry has been in a depression over the past three years.

Source: Pitchbook

Private equity deal flow showed great promise this time last year, but fell precipitously by the end of 2011.  Interestingly, according to Capital IQ, global aggregate annual deal flow in terms of number of transactions has been far more stable while dollar values have fluctuated widely.

Year                          # of  … read the rest

John Gabbert – CEO of Pitchbook

Posted on April 4, 2011

John Gabbert has a unique view of the private equity industry.  As CEO of Pitchbook, he has access to the most intuitive and complete data source for transactions and investors throughout the multi-trillion dollar private equity industry.  We interviewed John from his offices on the Seattle waterfront.  You’ll enjoy the unique environment in which John and his team work, right next to the docks where the tourist boats depart for Puget Sound.  No wonder Seattle has so many entrepreneurs;  in a place like that its hard to define what they do as “work”.

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Overall the interview provides a pretty optimistic view for the M&A market.  The private equity overhang (capital available for investment) remains quite large at approximately $490 billion.

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John reports signs of increasing deal activity as the PEGs put some of this money to work.  Most interesting are his insights on the impact of the deal slowdown on PE portfolios.  Per the slide to the left average PE hold periods have lengthened substantially from around three and a half years in 2007 to over five years today.

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These extended holding periods will likely have a negative impact on compound return rates for some firms.  Equally important they have created a very significant activity overhang for PE firms, which must begin to increase their rate of portfolio exits as funds begin to reach their targeted lives, often seven years or so.

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To download the slide deck (9 megs) click here.

For the full interview (23 minutes), click on John’s picture below.

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