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

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

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

QE Anyone?

Posted on August 10, 2012

If anyone doubts we are moving to more monetary accommodation, take a look at the excerpt below from last night’s U.S. Financial Data release from the St. Louis Fed. The lower right hand corner reflects the most recent trends.

In June, we posted an article indicating a seeming correlation between the trend in direction and magnitude of U.S. M2 growth and U.S. economic activity. The decline in the M2 growth rate has now turned, and is headed up again, as you can see below, but the turn is not as dramatic as the growth in the Monetary Base.

We’ve previously stated our concern that the U.S. could be heading into a period of rapidly increasing inflation, similar to that experienced in the early 1970s that led to many years of stagflation, only ending with Mr. Volcker’s monetary castor oil. We’ve got all the ingredients, including this summer’s rapid runup in commodity prices. The past twelve month the GDP price deflator has dropped from 2.4% to 1.9% on an annual basis, averaging a bit above the Fed’s 2% target. 2-3% is in the range where the 1970’s inflation began to take off. Yet, we’re in a period where many, if not most, observers have been talking recession and increased likelihood of deflation. Real inflation will come as a black swan for many, with significant implications for both fixed income and equity markets.

Could the current round of easing be the spark that finally ignites the inflationary flame? There are lots of reasons to suspect that’s possible. Calculated Risk just supported a growing belief that housing may finally be bottoming. Declining home prices have been a primary force that’s kept inflation in check for the past few years. Add to that a renewed commodity spiral, annual wage inflation in China hitting 13-15% and evidence that the read the rest

Are We Measuring the Wrong Money Supply … Again?

Posted on June 12, 2012

Back in 2008 we wrote that the U. S. was facing a serious credit squeeze in part because we had failed to take into account some important structural changes in the credit markets: i.e. the rapid growth and subsequent collapse of the Shadow Banking system. Since then the Fed and the Treasury have spent enormous resources addressing the impact of that collapse through the purchase of assets from financial institutions, the nationalization of Fannie and Freddie and numerous other actions to prop up the housing market in hopes of repairing shrunken balance sheets throughout the economy.

We may be suffering from a different, but equally portentous, issue today arising from another misreading of what the term money really means. In response to our recent article on Fed tightening since the fall of 2011, John Lounsbury, Managing Editor of econintersect.com, made a very astute observation:

You do not mention it in your article but is it possible that the Fed has not been taking a sufficiently global view and has insufficiently reacted to a recessing Europe and a rapidly slowing Asia? India just dropped to a GDP growth rate below anything seen during the Great Financial Crisis. The manufacturing numbers in China have been flirting with contraction for several months. If the Fed reacts to these factors after they have gained a solid foothold, doesn’t that likely increase the magnitude of the yo-yo swings?

The U.S. dollar is without question the world’s reserve currency and the current problems of the Euro have only served to cement that position. Given the global demand for $100 bills, in many parts of the globe the dollar is not only the reserve currency, but the defacto physical currency as well. Yet we continue to look at money as a national, or in the case of the Euro, regional … read the rest

Did Fed Tightening Help Bring About The Current Market Downturn?

Posted on June 6, 2012

Bill Clinton often gets credit for the insight that the economy would drive the 1992 election, leading him to victory over George Bush. Actually it’s his acerbic sidekick James Carville who deserves the credit for that famous one-liner “It’s the economy stupid”.

Without a doubt, the economy played a major role in President Obama’s victory in 2008 as well. Now we’re in another election year and there is universal agreement that the economy is likely to drive the outcome in 2012. While most commentators are focused on whether QE3 is in the cards, we have a different slant on the current downturn. We suspect that the Fed has, possibly inadvertently, played a major role in bringing about this contraction, just as it did in triggering the crash in 2008. We’re also concerned that election year political pressure, driven by the economic slowdown, will force the Fed into a response with serious long term inflationary implications.

I’m an unabashed monetarist. Over long cycles money supply growth or the lack of it drives both economic activity and price levels. I understand that this is a simplistic view, that the collapse of velocity has changed the meaning of money growth, that the increased investor appetite for liquidity has skewed the numbers, etc. Simplistic or not, changes in the rate of growth of the money supply often prove, after appropriate lags, to be a great predictor of the future course of the financial markets and, to a lesser extent, the economy. So what are they saying now with the election less than six months off?

Every week the St. Louis Fed publishes a twenty-four page pamphlet called U. S. Financial Data, which provides a great snapshot view of monetary trends. Preceding the fall 2008 financial crash, in spring 2008 the Fed had pumped significant liquidity in the system … read the rest

Looking West (and South) Toward Tomorrow

Posted on January 31, 2012

If the U. S. economy is to successfully navigate its current perilous course, attention must move from the baggage of the past to the opportunities and challenges of the future.  Nothing symbolizes that better than the comparison of Europe’s ongoing economic morass with China’s relentless growth.

Our friends at McVean Trading consistently produce one of the most insightful newsletters on global economic trends.  They’ve been generous to share their recent analysis reprinted below of the global trading shifts that have led to China’s current export dominance. We’ve reprinted the article in full below.  The article includes a interesting analysis of inflation trends in China, but the most important takeaway is that the Chinese surge is not an isolated event, but a continuum of trends that began almost forty years ago, first with Japan’s export boom, then with the Korean, Malaysian and Taiwanese Miracles and more recently with the strength of the Chinese manufacturing economy.  These are all part of a global movement to equalization of economic opportunity.

Far from dragging down the American economy, China’s boom is better viewed as the extension of trends that started more than 200 years ago when Samuel Slater (unfortunately no relation) memorized the technology developed in England for mechanization of the textile industry and brought it to the U. S.  Andrew Jackson gave Slater credit as being the Father of the American Industrial Revolution.  Of course today the shoe is on the other foot and he would more likely be branded as an intellectual property pirate.

Over time the seat of textile manufacturing moved from New England to the American South and eventually on to China.  It would be hard to argue that, over the longer term, New York or Boston has suffered as a result of the shift in their regional economies from strength in clothing and … read the rest

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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

Could 2012 Surprise to the Upside?

Posted on January 22, 2012

In January we are trained to predict the likely course of the coming year and more often than not we get it wrong. This year virtually everyone has had the same prediction: “We’ll muddle along at around 2.5% growth unless something really bad happens and then all bets are off.” The outliers tend to focus on the possibility that we are heading for a recession based in part on the negative call from the Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI). Yet some of the economic data is not cooperating with the doomsayers and our observations in the real world are that business for many of our clients is not all that bad and is in fact improving.

What if the pessimists are wrong and 2012 turns out to be a far more positive year for the economy than many are predicting? While the jury is still out, the data continues to improve in terms of employment and consumer spending.

Credit to Hale Stewart who recently published this and a number of other charts supportive of a positive economic case on Seeking Alpha. What’s the chance he could turn out to be right? Ignoring for the moment all the could go wrongs, what’s the case for a far stronger 2012 than is currently being predicted?

1. Everyone wants things to get better. This is not trivial. After four years of depression, everyone longs for the good old days. 2012 is predicted to be the best year since 2007 for the travel industry. What happens if Americans who have been accumulating dry powder for the past four years suddenly loosen their purse strings?

2. The Fed is committed to a massive and continuing program of monetizing the massive deficits the federal government continues to run. As we wrote recently, this has created a huge overhang of … read the rest

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