M&A activity in the U.S. (and globally) has accelerated in 2014 after years of gradual improvement following the financial crisis. According to Dealogic, M&A volume where the target was a U.S. company totaled $1.4 trillion YTD through November 10, the highest YTD volume on record and up 43% from the same period last year. Excluding cross-border acquisitions, domestic-only M&A was $1.1 trillion, which represented the second highest YTD volume since 1999 and up 27% from last year. Healthcare and telecommunications were the first and second most targeted sectors.
The improvement has taken a long time even though corporate cash is high, financing costs are very low and organic revenue growth in most industries has been sluggish. Aside from improving confidence, another key foundation for increased M&A activity fell into place in 2013 when equity markets staged a strong rally as the S&P 500 rose 30% (32% with dividends) and the Russell 2000 increased 37% (39%). The absence of a meaningful pullback in 2014 and a 12% advance in the S&P 500 and 2% in the Russell 2000 have further supported activity.
The rally in equities, like low borrowing rates, has reduced the cost to finance acquisitions because the majority of stocks experienced multiple expansion rather than material growth in EPS. It is easier for a buyer to issue shares to finance an acquisition if the shares trade at rich valuation than issuing “cheap” shares. As of November 24, the S&P 500’s P/E based upon trailing earnings (as reported) was 20.0x compared to 18.2x at year-end 2013, 17.0x at year-end 2012 and 14.9x at year-end 2011. The long-term average P/E since 1871 is 15.5x (Source: http://www.multpl.com).
High multiple stocks can be viewed as strong acquisition currencies for acquisitive companies because fewer shares have to be issued to achieve a targeted dollar value. As such, it is no surprise that the extended rally in equities has supported deal activity this year. However, high multiple stocks may represent an under-appreciated risk to sellers who receive the shares as consideration. Accepting the buyer’s stock raises a number of questions, most which fall into the genre of: what are the investment merits of the buyer’s shares? The answer may not be as obvious as it seems, even when the buyer’s shares are actively traded.
Our experience is that some, if not most, members of a board weighing an acquisition proposal do not have the background to thoroughly evaluate the buyer’s shares. Even when financial advisors are involved there still may not be a thorough vetting of the buyer’s shares because there is too much focus on “price” instead of, or in addition to, “value.”
A fairness opinion is more than a three or four page letter that opines as to the fairness from a financial point of a contemplated transaction; it should be backed by a robust analysis of all of the relevant factors considered in rendering the opinion, including an evaluation of the shares to be issued to the selling company’s shareholders. The intent is not to express an opinion about where the shares may trade in the future, but rather to evaluate the investment merits of the shares before and after a transaction is consummated.
Key questions to ask about the buyer’s shares include the following:
The list does not encompass every question that should be asked as part of the fairness analysis, but it does illustrate that a liquid market for a buyer’s shares does not necessarily answer questions about value, growth potential and risk profile.
We at Mercer Capital have extensive experience in valuing and evaluating the shares (and debt) of financial and non-financial service companies garnered from over three decades of business. Feel free to contact us to discuss your situation in confidence.
Jeff K. Davis is the Managing Director of Mercer Capital’s Financial Institutions Group. The Financial Institutions Group works with banks, thrifts, asset managers, insurance companies and agencies, BDCs, REITs, broker-dealers and financial technology companies. Prior to ...
Learn More ▻