M&A activity in North America (and globally) is rebounding in 2021 after falling to less than $2.0 trillion of deal value in 2020 for just the second time since 2015 according to PitchBook; however, deal activity has accelerated in 2021 and is expected to easily top 2020 assuming no major market disruption due to a confluence of multiple factors.
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 June 3, 2021, the S&P 500’s P/E based upon trailing earnings (as reported) was 44.9x compared to the long-term average since 1871 of 16x. Obviously trailing earnings were depressed by the impact of COVID-19 on 2020 earnings, but forward multiples are elevated, too. Based upon consensus estimates for 12 months ended March 31, 2022, the S&P 500 is trading for 21x earnings.
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.
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 ...
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