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

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

Commercial Banking Industry Continues To Shrink

Posted on December 8, 2012

John M. Mason

The FDIC statistics for the commercial banking system are out for the third quarter. There were 54 fewer commercial banks in existence at the end of the third quarter than at the end of the second quarter. The FDIC only closed twelve banks during this time period.

The number of problem banks in the banking system dropped to 694, down from 732 at the end of the second quarter. Is the banking system getting healthier? This decline of 36 banks is a smaller number than the decline that took place in the banking system as a whole.

Over the past year, the banking system shrank by 184 commercial banks, the number fell by 455 in the previous twelve months. The banking system is getting smaller in terms of the number of banks, but larger in terms of the size of banks.

As of September 30, 2012 there were 6,168 commercial banks in the banking system, down 184 from September 30, 2011. But, the number of commercial banks with assets of less than $100 million dropped by 175 banks. Over the past two years, the number of banks in this size category fell by 350 banks.

Banks whose assets ranged from $100 million to less than $1 billion dropped by 17. Over the past two years the number of banks in this asset class dropped by 123.

Commercial banks with assets in excess of $1 billion rose by 8 banks. They gained 18 banks over the last two years.

In terms of assets, banks with fewer than $100 million in asset size declined by slightly more than 7.0 percent in total assets. Commercial banks within the middle range kept about the same number of total assets over the year, while those banks that were more than $1 billion in asset size grew … 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

A Swan Blacker Than The Darkest Night

Posted on August 18, 2012

Interest Rates Rise at 2652% Annualized Rate! That’s probably a headline you will not see in the Wall Street Journal and it’s certainly a bit over the top, but those are the facts. From July 18 to August 17, the interest rate on the two-year Treasury jumped from .22% to .29%. That’s a 32% one month increase and works out to an annual jump of 2652% if you compound the increase monthly. Just to be fair the ten-year rate “only” rose from 1.52% to 1.81% or about 19% over the same period. With the magic of compound interest that generates a far more benign 713% annualized rate rise.

If you haven’t already done the math, those growth rates would take you to a 43.8% annual interest rate on the two year a year from now and a 12.9% interest rate on the ten year at that point. Of course that is not going to happen. Most likely we’ve just seen a random fluctuation in an overbought market. The Fed has promised to keep interest rates low for an extended period after all.

We’ve been saying for some time that the seeds have been planted for a move into a period of stagflation comparable to what we saw from the mid-1960’s and the 1970’s. That move, which transformed the benign inflation of the 1950’s to a raging inferno by the end of the period, eventually took Treasury rates for the 10 year to unheard of levels of 15% by the end of the 1970’s. This resulted in a collapse of the bond market and the eventual failure of entire savings and loan industry in the United States in the 1980s.

The United States and most of the developed world have benefited tremendously over the past 30 years from a steady drop in long-term bond rates.… 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

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

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