Shareholder Value Drivers

Originally presented at the Consumer Bankers Association Executive Banking School at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, in this session, Jeff K. Davis, CFA addresses the following objectives:

  • Valuation Framework
  • Concept of Earning Power
  • Reconciling P/TBV and P/E
  • Intrinsic Value vs Franchise Value
  • How Institutional Investors View Value
  • Great Stock vs Great Company
  • Overview of the Market for Bank Stocks and Bank M&A

Assessing the Buyer’s Shares

Originally presented at the Alabama Bankers Association CEO Conference in Point Clear, Alabama, in this session, Jeff K. Davis, CFA addresses the following objectives:

  • Framing the Questions
  • Valuation Framework
  • Concept of Earning Power
  • Reconciling P/TBV and P/E
  • How Institutional Investors View Value
  • Great Stock vs Great Company


Bank M&A 2019 Mid-Year Update

Through late July, M&A activity in 2019 is on pace to match the annual deal volume achieved in the last few years. Since 2014, approximately 4%-5% of banks have been absorbed each year via M&A. According to data provided by S&P Global Market Intelligence, there were 136 announced transactions in the year-to-date period, which equates to 2.5% of the 5,406 FDIC-insured institutions that existed as of year-end 2018.

In the first seven months of the year, aggregate deal volume reached $41.3 billion, which surpasses the $30.5 billion in announced deals in all of 2018 as shown in Figure 1. The increase primarily reflects the $28 billion BB&T-SunTrust merger that was announced on February 7 and represents the largest deal since the 2007-2009 financial crisis. While deal value is up, multiples are down relative to 2018 with the average P/TBV multiple declining from 174% to 161% and the median P/E multiple declining from 25.3x to 17.1x as shown in Figure 2, although the price/earnings multiples from the 2018 period may be distorted by the effects of tax reform.

The tables below provide a more detailed look at deal activity and the change in multiples in 2019 relative to 2018. For banks with assets less than $500 million, P/TBV multiples declined approximately 5%. While deal volume in the $500 million to $1 billion size group somewhat limits the meaningfulness of comparisons, it’s interesting to note that the median P/TBV multiple increased for this group relative to 2018 while the median buyer size increased from $3.1 billion in assets to $6.8 billion.

As shown in Figure 3 below, the landscape of buyers has shifted somewhat in favor of bigger banks over the last decade. Deal activity among the smallest group (buyers with assets less than $500 million) peaked in 2015 with 95 announced deals. In 2018, this group announced 56 acquisitions. In contrast, buyers with total assets between $10 billion-$50 billion announced a 10-year high, 28 deals in 2018 and are on pace to reach a similar level in 2019. In May 2018, the SIFI threshold was increased to $250 billion, providing immediate relief to banks with assets between $50 billion and $100 billion. For those with assets between $100 billion and $250 billion, regulatory relief will phase in after 18 months. This change is expected to encourage additional M&A activity among bigger players.

The theme of the story hasn’t changed; consolidation of the banking industry continues at a pace on par with the historical average. Target banks with less than $500 million in assets continue to comprise 75%-85% of total deal volume, but the composition of the buyer universe does seem to be shifting. In addition to the move towards larger buyers, another trend that appears to be gaining speed is the acquisition of commercial banks by credit unions. In 2015, three of such transactions were announced. In 2018, nine deals by credit unions were announced, and an additional ten have been announced through late July of this year.

As to be expected, pricing trends over the last few years have also further cemented the value of a stable and low-cost customer base. As shown in Figure 4 below, as interest rates increased from the end of 2015 through 2018, pricing diverged in favor of banks with the highest percentage of noninterest-bearing deposits to total deposits.

Mercer Capital has been providing transaction advisory and valuation services for over 30 years. To discuss a transaction or valuation issue in confidence, please contact us.

Originally published in Bank Watch, July 2019.

Community Bank Valuation (Part 1)

This article begins a series focused on the two issues most central to our work at Mercer Capital: What drives value for a depository institution and how are these drivers distilled into a value for a given depository institution?

We leave the more technical valuation discussion for subsequent articles. At its core, though, value is a function of a specified financial metric or metrics, growth, and risk.

Financial Metrics

Many industries have a valuation benchmark used by industry participants, although this metric does not necessarily cohere with benchmarks used by investors. In the banking industry, “book value” fills this role. In fact, there are several potential measures of book value, including:

  • Stated shareholders’ equity, as indicated in the institution’s financial statements
  • Tangible book value, which deducts purchase accounting intangible assets from stated shareholders’ equity
  • Tier 1 common equity, which is a regulatory capital measure that is less commonly used as a valuation metric

The most commonly used book value metric is tangible book value (or TBV). Like most industry benchmarks, simplicity and commonality are reasons industry participants embrace TBV as a valuation metric. Strengths of TBV as a valuation metric include:

  • It is reported frequently and comparable from institution to institution.
  • TBV is subject to less pronounced volatility than net income; thus, valuation multiples computed using TBV may be less prone to exaggeration when, for example, earnings are temporarily depressed.
  •  TBV can be used to capture the mean reversion tendencies of return on equity (ROE). For example, consider an institution with an ROE exceeding its peer group. Over time, as competitors understand and replicate its business model, these excess returns may diminish. An analyst could use TBV multiples to model potential mean reversion in ROE, which is more difficult to capture using a current period price/earnings multiple.

While TBV has its place, investors focus primarily on an institution’s earnings and the growth therein. This earnings orientation occurs because investors are forward looking, and TBV inherently is a backward-looking measure representing the sum of an institution’s common stock issuances, net income, dividends, and share redemptions since its inception. In addition to being forward-looking, investors also appreciate that earnings ultimately are the source of returns to shareholders. With earnings, the institution can do any of (or a combination of) the following:1

  • Reinvest (i.e., retain earnings), with the goal of generating higher future earnings
  • Pay dividends to shareholders
  • Repurchase stock, which supports the per share value by reducing the outstanding shares
  • Acquire other companies. Because goodwill and intangible assets are deducted when computing regulatory capital, earnings offset the TBV dilution created in these transactions

More bluntly, investors like growing earnings and cash returns (dividends or share repurchases), which are difficult to provide without a sustainable base of strong earnings. Investors will tolerate some near-term drag on earnings from expansion or risk mitigation strategies, but their patience is not limitless.

In many industries, earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) or a similar metric is the preferred earnings measure. However, banks derive most of their revenues from interest spreads, and EBITDA is an inappropriate metric. Instead, bank investors focus on net income and earnings per share. When credit quality is distressed, investors may consider earnings metrics calculated before the loan loss provision, such as pre-tax, pre-provision operating income (PPOI).

While earnings-based analyses generally should have valuation primacy in our opinion, TBV multiples nevertheless serves as an important test of reasonableness for a valuation analysis. It would be foolhardy to develop a valuation for a depository institution without calculating the TBV multiple implied by the concluded value. Analysts should be able to reconcile implied TBV multiples to public market or M&A market benchmarks and explain any significant discrepancies.

Occasionally, analysts cite balance sheet-based metrics beyond TBV, some of which have more analytical relevance than others. The most useful is a multiple of “core” deposits, a definition of deposits that excludes larger deposits and deposits obtained from wholesale funding markets. Core deposits are time consuming and costly to gather; thus, a multiple of core deposits aligns a bank’s value with its most attractive funding source. A less useful multiple is value as a percentage of total assets, the use of which would implicitly encourage management to stockpile assets without regard to their incremental profitability.


Investors like growth and accelerating growth even more. Without demonstrating the mathematics, higher expected growth rates produce higher valuation multiples. Further, price/earnings multiples expand at an increasing rate as growth rates increase, as indicated in the following chart. The opposite is true, too, as slowing growth reduces the price/earnings.

Banks report innumerable metrics to directors and investors, but what are the most relevant growth indicia to investors? Usually, investors focus on growth in the following:

  • Balance sheet components like loans and deposits, which ultimately drive revenue growth
  • Asset quality and capital adequacy
  • Pre-tax, pre-provision operating income, which smooths earnings fluctuations caused by periodic volatility in provisions for loan losses
  • Net income per share
  • Dividends per share
  • Tangible book value per share

Valuation is inherently forward-looking, and historical growth rates are useful mostly as potential predictors of future growth. Further, most investors understand that there is some tradeoff between earnings today and investing for higher earnings in the future. While some near-term pressure on earnings from an expansion strategy is acceptable, strategic investments should not continually be used to explain below average profitability. After all, a bank’s competitors likely are reinvesting as well for the future.

How does growth affect value? As a thought experiment, consider a bank with no expected growth in earnings and a 100% dividend payout ratio. Should this bank’s common equity value increase? In this admittedly extreme scenario, the answer is no. This bank’s common equity resembles a preferred stock investment, with a shareholder’s return generated by dividends. That is, for value to grow, one (or preferably more) of the preceding factors must increase.

Should a bank prioritize growth in earnings per share, dividends per share, or another metric? The answer likely depends on the bank’s shareholder base. In public markets, investors tend to be more focused on earnings per share growth. If an investor desires income, he or she can sell shares in the public market. For privately-held banks, though, investors often are keenly aware of dividend payments and emphasize the income potential of the investment. Of course, sustaining higher dividend payments requires earnings growth.

Growth creates a virtuous cycle – retained earnings lead to higher future net income, allowing for future higher dividends or additional reinvestment, and so the cycle continues. One important caveat exists, though. This virtuous cycle presumes that the retained earnings from a given year are invested in new opportunities yielding the same return on equity as the existing operations. If reinvestment occurs in lower ROE opportunities – such as liquid assets supported by excess capital beyond the level needed to operate the bank safely – then growth in value may be diminished.

This discussion of growth segues into the third key valuation factor, risk.


More than most industries, risk management is an overarching responsibility of management and the board of directors and a crucial element to long-term shareholder returns. Banks encounter the following forms of risk:

  • Credit risk, or the risk that the bank’s investments in loans and other assets may not be repaid in full or on a timely basis
  • Liquidity risk, or the risk that arises from transforming liabilities that are due on demand (deposits) into illiquid assets (loans) » Interest rate risk, or the risk attributable to assets and liabilities with mismatched pricing structures or durations
  • Operational risk, such as from malevolent actors like computer hackers

While growth rates are observable from reported financial metrics, the risk assumed to achieve that growth often is more difficult to discern – at least in the near-term. Risk can accumulate, layer upon layer, for years until a triggering event happens, such as an economic downturn. Risk also is asymmetric in the sense that a strategy creating incremental risk, such as a new lending product, can be implemented quickly, but exiting the problems resulting from that strategy may take years.

From a valuation standpoint, investors seek the highest return for the least risk. Given two banks with identical growth prospects, investors would assign a higher price/earnings multiple to the bank with the lower risk profile. Indicia of risk include:

  • The launch of new products or business lines » Expansion into new geographic markets
  • Higher than average loan yields coupled with lower than average loan losses

None of the preceding factors necessarily imply higher risk vis-à-vis other banks; the key is risk management, not risk avoidance. However, if an investor believes risk is rising for any reason, then that expectation can manifest in our three pronged valuation framework as follows:

  1. Financial Metric. The investor may view a bank’s current earnings as unsustainable once the risk associated with a business strategy becomes evident, leading to reduced expectations of future profitability.
  2. Growth. An investor may assess that a bank’s growth rates are exaggerated by accepting too much risk in pursuing growth. In this event, earnings growth expectations would be tempered as the bank realigns its growth, risk, and return objectives.
  3. Risk. Valuation multiples are inversely related to risk. By increasing the investor’s required return, the investor increases his or her margin of safety in the event of unfavorable financial developments.

An old adage is that risk can be quantified and uncertainty cannot. This observation explains why stock prices and pricing multiples can be particularly volatile for banks in periods of economic uncertainty or distress. If investors cannot quantify a bank’s downside exposure, which often is more attributable to general economic anxieties than the quality of the bank’s financial disclosures, then they tend to react by taking a pessimistic stance. As a result, risk premiums can widen dramatically, leading to lower multiples.


This article provides an overview of the three key factors underlying bank stock valuations – financial performance, risk, and growth. While these three factors are universal to valuations, we caution that the examples, guidance, and observations in this article may not apply to every depository institution.

At Mercer Capital, valuations of clients’ securities are more than a mere quantitative exercise. Integrating a bank’s growth prospects and risk characteristics into a valuation analysis requires understanding the bank’s history, business plans, market opportunities, response to emerging technological issues, staff experience, and the like. These important influences on a valuation analysis cannot be gleaned solely from reviewing a bank’s Call Report. Future editions of this series will describe both the quantitative and qualitative considerations we use to arrive at sound, well-reasoned, and well-supported valuations.

1 In theory, a bank could accomplish the preceding without earnings, but eventually that well (i.e., the bank’s TBV) will run dry

Originally published in Bank Watch, June 2019.

2019 AAML/BVR National Divorce Conference Recap

On May 8-10, 2019, Chris Mercer, Scott Womack, and I attended the 2019 AAML/BVR National Divorce Conference in Las Vegas. This was the first biannual National Divorce Conference on cutting edge tax, valuation, and financial issues co-sponsored by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and Business Valuation Resources, LLC.

In attendance were family law attorneys, general practice attorneys, CPAs, business valuators, and other financial professionals. Total attendance was approximately 300 individuals, split about 50/50 between attorneys and financial professionals. Sessions covered topics including updates on standards of value, cryptocurrencies and their impact on divorce, tax law changes and their impact on family law, and how to best present your case to the courtroom, among others.

We have chosen four sessions that we thought would be of interest to this newsletter’s audience.

Blockchain/Crypto: Dividing Digital Assets

Edward L. Kainen, Senior Managing Partner of Kainen Law Group, PLLC & Richard West, Principal & Shareholder of West Family Law Group

In “Blockchain/Crypto: Dividing Digital Assets,” Ed Kainen and Richard West provided a brief history of money– from the development of various forms of currencies and eventually to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In addition to providing a comprehensive glossary of essential terminology, the speakers also covered how Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies are transacted and explained the mechanics of Bitcoin technology upon which cryptocurrencies rely. A history of Bitcoin, as well as the benefits, determinants and consequences associated with the use of these cryptocurrencies was addressed. The session also covered how all of the foregoing impacts divorce and family law litigation, both issues of valuation and essentials of discovery, as well as the potential for malpractice pitfalls and how to avoid them.

How to Present Complex Finance to Judges: K.I.S.S.

Z. Christopher Mercer, FASA, CFA, ABAR, Founder and CEO of Mercer Capital

In “How to Present Complex Finance to Judges: K.I.S.S.,” Chris Mercer addressed the question of how to K.I.S.S. (keep it simple, stupid) in a litigation setting, as the K.I.S.S. principle is one of the key ideas of effective communication. Mr. Mercer drew on over 30 years of experience in presenting complex valuation and damages issues to judges and juries while sharing the techniques and templates necessary to communicate one’s position and the opponent’s position in such a way that judges can understand key information and why it is important.

How to Rig a Valuation in a Marital Dispute

James R. Hitchner, CPA, ABV, CFF, ASA, Managing Director of Financial Valuation Advisors

In this session, Jim Hitcher posed the question: Have you ever read a business valuation report where you knew the valuation was rigged to obtain a higher or lower value? During his session, he provided tricks of the trade to identify how some valuation analysts can manipulate the process in order to please their client and/or win at all costs. Mr. Hitchner also provided tips on how to attack biases including three areas with the most frequent biases such as multiples, growth factors, and the specific company risk premium/risk factor.

Splitting Compensation Equity Awards & Options – Splitting Up is Hard to Do

Peter L. Gladstone, Principal & Shareholder of Gladstone and Weissman & Robert A. Stone, CPA, CFF, ABV, Principal at Kaufman Rossin 

In this session, Peter Gladstone and Robert Stone provided background on equity awards and options as the increase of startups precipitated by the tech boom of the 1990s has led to increasing popularity of stock options, restricted stock units (“RSUs”), and similar types of equity-based compensation. These forms of executive compensation have become common in both privately held and publically traded companies.

Designed to both reward and retain talented employees, these benefits can be difficult to understand and value, particularly at a random moment that, while relevant to one’s divorce, might seem arbitrary in the context of a business. Just as the value of closely held businesses presents challenging issues over which business valuation experts often disagree, equity-based compensation plans and their values (or future income stream) represent ground for a divergence of opinions among forensic accountants supporting counsel on behalf of their divorce clients.

During the session, the speakers examined the various characteristics of stock options, RSUs, both vested and unvested; their tax implications; and the challenges typically encountered in valuing and equitably distributing these valuable and highly guarded assets of a marital estate.

All the sessions were well-received, and we recommend these presentations and their authors’ publications to anyone interested. We’re looking forward to next year’s event and hope to see you there.

Originally published in Mercer Capital’s Tennessee Family Law Newsletter, Second Quarter 2019.

8 Things to Know About Section 409A

1. What is Section 409A?

Section 409A is a provision of the Internal Revenue Code that applies to all companies offering nonqualified deferred compensation plans to employees. Generally speaking, a deferred compensation plan is an arrangement whereby an employee (“service provider” in 409A parlance) receives compensation in a later tax year than that in which the compensation was earned. “Nonqualified” plans exclude 401(k) and other “qualified” plans.

What is interesting from a valuation perspective is that stock options and stock appreciation rights (SARs), two common forms of incentive compensation for private companies, are potentially within the scope of Section 409A. The IRS is concerned that stock options and SARs issued “in the money” are really just a form of deferred compensation, representing a shifting of current compensation to a future taxable year. So, in order to avoid being subject to 409A, employers (“service recipients”) need to demonstrate that all stock options and SARs are issued “at the money” (i.e., with the strike price equal to the fair market value of the underlying shares at the grant date). Stock options and SARs issued “out of the money” do not raise any particular problems with regard to Section 409A.

2. What are the consequences of Section 409A?

Stock options and SARs that fall under Section 409A create problems for both service recipients and service providers. Service recipients are responsible for normal withholding and reporting obligations with respect to amounts includible in the service provider’s gross income under Section 409A. Amounts includible in the service provider’s gross income are also subject to interest on prior underpayments and an additional income tax equal to 20% of the compensation required to be included in gross income. For the holder of a stock option, this can be particularly onerous as, absent exercise of the option and sale of the underlying stock, there has been no cash received with which to pay the taxes and interest.

These consequences make it critical that stock options and SARs qualify for the exemption under 409A available when the fair market value of the underlying stock does not exceed the strike price of the stock option or SAR at the grant date.

3. What constitutes “reasonable application of a reasonable valuation method”?

For public companies, it is easy to determine the fair market value of the underlying stock on the grant date. For private companies, fair market value cannot be simply looked up on Bloomberg. Accordingly, for such companies, the IRS regulations provide that “fair market value may be determined through the reasonable application of a reasonable valuation method.” In an attempt to clarify this clarification, the regulations proceed to state that if a method is applied reasonably and consistently, such valuations will be presumed to represent fair market value, unless shown to be grossly unreasonable. Consistency in application is assessed by reference to the valuation methods used to determine fair market value for other forms of equity-based compensation. An independent appraisal will be presumed reasonable if “the appraisal satisfies the requirements of the Code with respect to the valuation of stock held in an employee stock ownership plan.”

A reasonable valuation method is to consider the following factors:

The value of tangible and intangible assets

The present value of future cash flows

The market value of comparable businesses (both public and private)

Other relevant factors such as control premiums or discounts for lack of marketability

Whether the valuation method is used consistently for other corporate purposes

In other words, a reasonable valuation considers the cost, income, and market approaches, and considers the specific control and liquidity characteristics of the subject interest. For start-up companies, the valuation would also consider the company’s most recent financing round and the rights and preferences of any securities issued. The IRS is also concerned that the valuation of common stock for purposes of Section 409A be consistent with valuations performed for other purposes.

4. How is fair market value defined?

Fair market value is not specifically defined in Section 409A of the Code or the associated regulations. Accordingly, we look to IRS Revenue Ruling 59-60, which defines fair market value as “the price at which the property would change hands between a willing buyer and a willing seller when the former is not under any compulsion to buy and the latter is not under any compulsion to sell, both parties having reasonable knowledge of relevant facts.”

5. Does fair market value incorporate a discount for lack of marketability?

Among the general valuation factors to be considered under a reasonable valuation method are “control premiums or discounts for lack of marketability.” In other words, if the underlying stock is illiquid, the stock should presumably be valued on a non-marketable minority interest basis.

This is not without potential confusion, however. In an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), stock issued to participants is generally covered by a put right with respect to either the Company or the ESOP. Accordingly, valuation specialists often apply marketability discounts on the order of 0% to 10% to ESOP shares. Shares issued pursuant to a stock option plan may not have similar put rights attached, and therefore may warrant a larger marketability discount. In such cases, a company that has an annual ESOP appraisal may not have an appropriate indication of fair market value for purposes of Section 409A.

6. Are formula prices reliable measures of fair market value?

In addition to independent appraisals, formula prices may, under certain circumstances, be presumed to represent fair market value. Specifically, the formula cannot be unique to the subject stock option or SAR, but must be used for all transactions in which the issuing company buys or sells stock.

7. What are the rules for start-ups?

For purposes of Section 409A compliance, start-ups are defined as companies that have been in business for less than ten years, do not have publicly traded equity securities, and for which no change of control event or public offering is reasonably anticipated to occur in the next twelve months. For start-up companies, a valuation will be presumed reasonable if “made reasonably and in good faith and evidenced by a written report that takes into account the relevant factors prescribed for valuations generally under these regulations.” Further, such a valuation must be performed by someone with “significant knowledge and experience or training in performing similar valuations.”

This presumption, while presented as a separate alternative, strikes us a substantively and practically similar to the independent appraisal presumption described previously. Some commentators have suggested that the valuation of a start-up company may be performed by an employee or board member of the issuing company. We suspect that it is the rare employee or board member that is actually qualified to render the described valuation.

The bottom line is that Section 409A applies to both start-ups and mature companies.

8. Who is qualified to determine fair market value?

The safe harbor presumptions of Section 409A apply only when the valuation is based upon an independent appraisal, and it is likely that a valuation prepared by an employee or board member would raise questions of independence and objectivity.

The regulations also clarify that the experience of the individual performing the valuation generally means at least five years of relevant experience in business valuation or appraisal, financial accounting, investment banking, private equity, secured lending, or other comparable experience in the line of business or industry in which the service recipient operates.

In our reading of the rules, this means that the appraisal should be prepared by an individual or firm that has a thorough educational background in finance and valuation, has accrued significant professional experience preparing independent appraisals, and has received formal recognition of his or her expertise in the form of one or more professional credentials (ASA, ABV, CBA, or CFA). The valuation professionals at Mercer Capital have the depth of knowledge and breadth of experience necessary to help you navigate the potentially perilous path of Section 409A.

Originally published in the Financial Reporting Update: Equity Compensation, June 2019.

Shelf Life of an Equity Compensation Valuation

Clients frequently want to know, “How long is an equity compensation valuation good for?” We get it. You want to provide employees, contractors, and other service providers who are compensated through company stock with current information about their interests, but the time and cost required to get a valuation must also be considered.

Due to the natural business changes every company goes through, accounting and legal professionals often recommend updates at least annually if no significant change or financing has occurred.  However, unique company or market characteristics often necessitate more frequent updates. Here are some of the factors to consider when determining the need for a valuation update:

  • Significant changes in the company’s financial situation
  • Shift in overall strategy
  • Achievement of business milestones
  • Changes in market or industry conditions
  • Gain or loss of major customer accounts
  • Additional funding
  • Issuance of new equity compensation
  • Potential for an upcoming IPO
  • Changes in expectation as to the timing of an exit event

Even for companies that have fairly steady operations, the effects of small business changes accumulate over time. Companies that deal with major changes relatively infrequently may be suited to regular summary updates to supplement full comprehensive reports as a way to maximize the cost-benefit analysis of equity compensation valuation.

Originally published in the Financial Reporting Update: Equity Compensation, June 2019.

Simple vs. Complex Capital Structures

Executives expend a great deal of effort to determine the optimal way to finance the operations of their businesses.  This may involve bringing on outside investors, employing bank debt, or financing through cash flow. Once the money has hit the bank, they may wonder, what effect does the capitalization of my company have on the value of its equity?

A company with a simple capital structure typically has been financed through the issuance of one class of stock (usually common stock).  Companies with complex capital structures, on the other hand, may include other instruments: multiple classes of stock, forms of convertible debt, options, and warrants.  This is frequent in startup or venture-backed companies that receive financing through multiple channels or fundraising rounds and private equity sources.

With various types of stock on the cap table, it is important to note that all stock classes are not the same.  Each class holds certain rights, preferences, and priorities of return that can confer a portion of enterprise value to the shares besides their pro rata allocation.  These often come in two categories: economic rights and control rights.  Economic rights bestow financial benefits while control rights grant benefits related to operations and decision making.

Economic rights:

  • Liquidation preference
  • Dividends
  • Mandatory redemption rights
  • Conversion rights
  • Participation rights
  • Anti-dilution rights
  • Registration rights

Control rights:

  • Voting rights
  • Protective provisions
  • Veto rights
  • Board composition rights
  • Drag-along rights
  • Right to participate in future rounds (pro-rata rights)
  • First refusal rights
  • Tag-along rights
  • Management rights
  • Information rights

The value of a certain class of stock is affected both by the rights and preferences it holds as well as those held by the other share classes on the cap table.  The presence of multiple preferred classes also brings up the issue of seniority as certain class privileges may be overruled by those of a more senior share class.

Complex capital structures require complex valuation models that can integrate and prioritize the special treatments of individual share classes in multi-class cap tables.  As such, models such as the PWERM or OPM are better-suited for these types of circumstances.

Originally published in the Financial Reporting Update: Equity Compensation, June 2019.

Calibrating or Reconciling Valuation Models to Transactions in a Company’s Equity

When an exit event is not imminent, the appropriate models to measure the fair value of a company with a complex capital stack are the Probability Weighted Expected Return Method (PWERM), the Option Pricing Method (OPM), or some combination of the two.  While the choice of the model(s) is often dictated by facts and circumstances – for example, the company’s stage of development, visibility into exit avenues, etc. – using either the PWERM or the OPM requires a number of key assumptions that may be difficult to source or support for pre-public, often pre-profitable, companies.  In this context, primary or secondary transactions involving the company’s equity instruments, which may or may not be identical to common shares, can be useful in measuring fair value or evaluating overall reasonableness of valuation conclusions.

For companies granting equity-based compensation, transactions are likely to take the form of either issuances of preferred shares as part of fundraising rounds or secondary transactions of equity instruments (preferred or common shares, as part of a fundraising round or on a standalone basis).  Fundraising rounds usually do not provide pricing indications for common shares (or options on common) directly.  However, a backsolve exercise that calibrates the PWERM and/or the OPM to the price of the new-issue preferred shares can provide value indications for the entire enterprise and common shares.  While standalone secondary transactions may involve common shares, facts and circumstances around those transactions may determine the usefulness of related pricing information for any calibration or reconciliation exercise.  Calibration, when viable, provides not only comfort around the overall soundness of valuation models and assumptions, but also a platform on which future value measurements can be based.

This article presents a brief discussion on evaluating observed or prospective transactions.  Not all transactions are created equal – a fair value analysis should consider the facts and circumstances around the transactions to assess whether (and the degree to which) they are useful and relevant, or not.1

Fair Value

ASC 718 Compensation-Stock Compensation defines fair value as “the amount at which an asset (or liability) could be bought (or incurred) or sold (or settled) in a current transaction between willing parties, that is, other than in a forced or liquidation sale.”  ASC 820 Fair Value Measurement defines fair value as “the price that would be received to sell an asset or paid to transfer a liability in an orderly transaction between market participants at the measurement date.”  While some of the finer nuances may differ slightly, both definitions make reference to the concepts of i) willing and informed buyers and sellers, and ii) orderly transactions.

Notably, ASC 820 includes the directive that “valuation techniques used to measure fair value shall maximize the use of relevant observable inputsÉand minimize the use of unobservable inputs.”  We take this to mean that pricing information from transactions should be used in the measurement (valuation) process as long as they are relevant from a fair value perspective.

Willing and Informed Parties

A fundraising round involving new investors, assuming the company is not in financial distress, tends to involve negotiations between sophisticated buyers (investors) and informed sellers (issuing companies).  As such, these transactions are relevant in measuring the fair value of equity instruments, including those granted as compensation.

When a fundraising round does not involve new investors, the parties to the transaction are not necessarily independent of each other.  However, such a round may still be relevant from a fair value perspective if pricing resulted from robust negotiations or was otherwise reflective of market pricing.

Secondary Transactions – Orderly Transactions?

As they give rise to observable inputs, secondary transactions can be relevant in the measurement process if the pricing information is reflective of fair value.  Pricing from transactions in an active market for an identical equity instrument would generally reflect fair value.  In other cases, orderly transactions Ð those that have received adequate exposure to the appropriate market, allowed sufficient marketing activities, and were not forced or distressed Ð can give rise to transaction prices that are reconcilable with fair value.  Orderly secondary transactions that are relatively larger and those that involve equity instruments similar to the subject interests are more relevant.

Strategic Elements

Some fundraising rounds involve strategic investors who may receive economic benefits beyond just the ownership interest in the company.  The strategic benefits could be codified in explicit contracts like a licensing arrangement.  Consideration paid for equity interests acquired in such transactions may exceed the price a market participant (with no strategic interests) would consider reasonable.  However, even as the pricing indication from such a transaction may not be directly relevant, it can be a useful reference or benchmark in measuring fair value.  For example, it may be possible to estimate the excess economic benefits accruing to the strategic investors.  Any fair value indication obtained separately could then be compared and reconciled to the price from the strategic fundraising rounds.

In other instances, strategic rounds may result in the company and investors sharing equally in the excess economic benefits.  The transaction price could then be reflective of fair value, and a backsolve analysis to calibrate to the transaction price would be viable.

More Complex Structures

A tranched preferred investment may segment the purchase of equity interests into multiple installments.  Pricing for such a round is usually set before the transaction and is identical across the installments, but future cash infusions may be contingent on specified milestones.  Value of a company usually increases upon achieving technical, regulatory, or financial milestones.  Even when future installments are not contingent on specified milestones, value may increase over time as the company makes progress on its business plan.  Pricing set before the first installment tends to reflect a premium to the value of the company at the initial transaction date as it likely includes some expectation of potential economic upside from future installments.  On the other hand, the same price may reflect a discount from the value of the company at future installment dates as the investments are (only) made once the economic upside is realized.  Accordingly, a reconciliation to pricing information from these fundraising rounds may require separate estimates of the expectation of future upside (for the initial transaction date) and future values implied by the initial terms of the transaction (for later installment dates).

Some fundraising rounds involve purchases of a mix of equity instruments across the capital stack (i.e. different vintages of preferred and/or common) for the same or similar stated price per share.  Usually, common shares involved in mixed purchases represent secondary transactions.  From a fair value perspective, the transaction could be relevant in the aggregate and provide a basis to discern prices for each class of equity involved (considering the differences in rights and preferences among the classes).  In other instances, either the company or the investor may have entered into a transaction for additional strategic benefits beyond just the economics reflected in the share prices.  Depending on whether the buyer or the seller expects the additional strategic benefits, reported pricing may exceed the fair value of common shares or understate the value of the preferred shares.  In yet other instances, mixed purchases at the same or similar prices may indicate a high likelihood of an initial public offering (IPO) in the near future.  Typically, preferred shares convert into common at IPO and only one class of share exists subsequently.

Timing of Transactions and Other Events

Perhaps obviously, for both secondary and primary transactions, more proximate pricing indications are generally more directly useful for fair value measurement.  Older, orderly transactions involving willing and informed parties would have been reflective of fair value at the time they occurred.  If a more recent pricing observation is not available, current value indications could still be reconciled with the older transactions by considering changes at the company (and general market conditions) since the transaction date.

Planned future fundraising rounds could also provide useful information.  In addition to the factors already addressed, a fair value analysis at the measurement date would need to consider the risk around the closing of the transaction.

Besides the usual transactions, other events that occur subsequent to the measurement date could still have a bearing on fair value.  Future events that were known or knowable to market participants at the valuation date should be considered in measuring fair value.  Events that were not known or knowable, but were still quite significant, may require separate disclosures.

Special Case – IPOs

An example of a special event on the horizon is an impending IPO.  An IPO is usually a complex process that is executed over a relatively long period.  At various points during the process, the company’s board or management, or the underwriter (investment banker) may project or estimate the IPO price.  These estimates may change frequently or significantly until the actual IPO price is finalized.  Even the actual IPO price may be subject to specific supply and demand conditions in the market at or near the date of final pricing.  Subsequent trading often occurs at prices that vary (sometimes drastically) from the IPO price.  For these reasons, estimates or actual IPO prices are unlikely to be reflective of fair value for pre-IPO companies.

Setting aside the uncertainties and idiosyncrasies around the process, an IPO provides ready liquidity for investors and access to public capital markets for the company.  The act of going public ameliorates the risks associated with the lack of marketability of investments in a company.  Easier access to public markets generally lowers the cost of capital, which would engender higher enterprise values.  Accordingly, fair value of a minority equity interest prior to an IPO is generally perceived to be meaningfully different from (estimates of) the IPO price.


Incorporating information from observed or prospective transactions can help calibrate the PWERM or the OPM (or other valuation methods), along with the underlying assumptions.  However, a valuation analysis should evaluate the transactions to assess whether they are relevant.  Even when they are not directly relevant, transactions can help gauge the reasonableness of valuation conclusions.

Valuation specialists are fond of thinking their craft involves a blend of technique and judgment.  The specific mechanics of models and methods, and related computations, represent the technical aspect.  There is certainly some judgment involved in developing or selecting the assumptions that feed into the models.  Judgment plays a bigger role, perhaps, in weaving together the models, assumptions, valuation conclusions, and other facts and circumstances, including transactions, into a coherent and compelling narrative.

Contact Mercer Capital with your valuation needs. We combine technical knowledge and judgment developed over decades of practice to serve our clients.

1   The discussion presented in this article is a summary of our reading of the relevant sections in the following:

Valuation of Privately-Held-Company Equity Securities Issued as Compensation, AICPA Accounting & Valuation Guide, 2013

Valuation of Portfolio Company Investments of Venture Capital and Private Equity Funds and Other Investment Companies, Working Draft of AICPA Accounting & Valuation Guide, 2018

Originally published in the Financial Reporting Update: Equity Compensation, June 2019.

Valuation Methods for Private Company Equity-Based Compensation

Equity-based compensation has been a key part of compensation plans for years.  When the equity compensation involves a publicly traded company, the current value of the stock is known and so the valuation of share-based payments is relatively straightforward.  However, for private companies, the valuation of the enterprise and associated share-based compensation can be quite complex.

The AICPA Accounting & Valuation Guide, Valuation of Privately-Held-Company Equity Securities Issued as Compensation, describes four criteria that should be considered when selecting a method for valuing equity securities:

  • Going Concern.  The method should align with the going-concern status of the company, including expectations about future events and the timing of cash flows.  For example, if acquisition of the company is imminent, then expectations regarding the future of the enterprise as a going concern are not particularly relevant.
  • Common Share Value.  The method should assign some value to the common shares, unless the company is in liquidation with no expected distributions to common shareholders.
  • Independent Replication.  It is important that the results of the method used by a valuation specialist can be independently replicated or approximated using the same underlying data and assumptions.  When completing the valuation, proprietary practices and models should not be the primary method of determining value.
  • Complexity and Stage of Development.  The complexity of the method selected should be appropriate to the company’s stage of development. In other words, a simpler valuation method (like an OPM) with fewer underlying assumptions may be more appropriate for an early-stage entity with few employees than a highly complex method (like a PWERM).

With these considerations in mind, let’s take a closer look at the four most common methods used to value private company equity securities.

Current Value Method (CVM)

The Current Value Method estimates the total equity value of the company on a controlling basis (assuming an immediate sale) and subtracts the value of the preferred classes based on their liquidation preferences or conversion values.  The residual is then allocated to common shareholders. Because the CVM is concerned only with the value of the company on the valuation date, assumptions about future exit events and their timing are not needed. The advantage of this method is that it is easy to implement and does not require a significant number of assumptions or complex modeling.

However, because the CVM is not forward looking and does not consider the option-like payoffs of the share classes, its use is generally limited to two circumstances. First, the CVM could be employed when a liquidity event is imminent (such as a dissolution or an acquisition). The second situation might be when an early-stage company has made no material progress on its business plan, has had no significant common equity value created above the liquidation preference of the preferred shares, and for which no reasonable basis exists to estimate the amount or timing of when such value might be created in the future.

Generally speaking, once a company has raised an arm’s-length financing round (such as venture capital financing), the CVM is no longer an appropriate method.

Probability-Weighted Expected Return Method (PWERM)

The Probability-Weighted Expected Return Method is a multi-step process in which value is estimated based on the probability-weighted present value of various future outcomes.  First, the valuation specialist works with management to determine the range of potential future outcomes for the company, such as IPO, sale, dissolution, or continued operation until a later exit date.  Next, future equity value under each scenario is estimated and allocated to each share class.  Each outcome and its related share values are then weighted based on the probability of the outcome occurring.  The value for each share class is discounted back to the valuation date using an appropriate discount rate and divided by the number of shares outstanding in the respective class.

The primary benefit of the PWERM is its ability to directly consider the various terms of shareholder agreements, rights of each class, and the timing when those rights will be exercised. The method allows the valuation specialist to make specific assumptions about the range, timing, and outcomes from specific future events, such as higher or lower values for a strategic sale versus an IPO.  The PWERM is most appropriate to use when the period of time between the valuation date and a potential liquidity event is expected to be short.

Of course, the PWERM also has limitations.  PWERM models can be difficult to implement because they require detailed assumptions about future exit events and cash flows.  Such assumptions may be difficult to support objectively. Further, because it considers only a specific set of outcomes (rather than a full distribution of possible outcomes), the PWERM may not be appropriate for valuing option-like payoffs like profit interests or warrants. In certain cases, analysts may also need to consider interim cash flows or the impact of future rounds of financing.

Option Pricing Model (OPM)

The Option Pricing Model treats each class of shares as call options on the total equity value of the company, with exercise prices based on the liquidation preferences of the preferred stock. Under this method, common shares would have material value only to the extent that residual equity value remains after satisfaction of the preferred stock’s liquidation preference at the time of a liquidity event. The OPM typically uses the Black-Scholes Option Pricing Model to price the various call options.

In contrast to the PWERM, the OPM begins with the current total equity value of the company and estimates the future distribution of outcomes using a lognormal distribution around that current value. This means that two of the critical inputs to the OPM are the current value of the firm and a volatility assumption. Current value of the firm might be estimated with a discounted cash flow method or market methods (for later-stage firms) or inferred from a recent financing transaction using the backsolve method (for early-stage firms). The volatility assumption is usually based upon the observed volatilities of comparable public companies, with potential adjustment for the subject entity’s financial leverage.

The OPM is most appropriate for situations in which specific future liquidity events are difficult to forecast.  It can accommodate various terms of stockholder agreements that affect the distributions to each class of equity upon a liquidity event, such as conversion ratios, cash allocations, and dividend policy. Further, the OPM considers these factors as of the future liquidity date, rather than as of the valuation date.

The primary limitations of the OPM are its assumption that future outcomes can be modeled using a lognormal distribution and its reliance on (and sensitivity to) key assumptions like assumed volatility. The OPM also does not explicitly allow for dilution caused by additional financings or the issuance of options or warrants.  The OPM can only consider a single liquidity event. As such, the method does not readily accommodate the right or ability of preferred shareholders to early-exercise (which would limit the upside for common shareholders). The potential for early-exercise might be better captured with a lattice or simulation model.  For an in-depth discussion on the OPM, see our whitepaper A Layperson’s Guide to the Option Pricing Model at

Hybrid Method

The Hybrid Method is a combination of the PWERM and the OPM.  It uses probability-weighted scenarios, but with an OPM to allocate value in one or more of the scenarios.

The Hybrid Method might be employed when a company has visibility regarding a particular exit path (such as a strategic sale) but uncertainties remain if that scenario falls through. In this case, a PWERM might be used to estimate the value of the shares under the strategic sale scenario, along with a probability assumption that the sale goes through. For the scenario in which the transaction does not happen, an OPM would be used to estimate the value of the shares assuming a more uncertain liquidity event at some point in the future.

The primary advantage of the Hybrid Method is that it allows for consideration of discrete future liquidity scenarios while also capturing the option-like payoffs of the various share classes. However, this method typically requires a large number of assumptions and can be difficult to implement in practice.


The methods for valuing private company equity-based compensation range from simplistic (like the CVM) to complex (like the Hybrid Method). In addition to the factors discussed above, the facts and circumstances of a particular company’s stage of development and capital structure can influence the complexity of the valuation method selected. In certain instances, a recent financing round or secondary sale of stock becomes a datapoint that needs to be reconciled to the current valuation analysis and may even prove to be indicative of the value for a particular security in the capital stack (see “Calibrating or Reconciling Valuation Models to Transactions in a Company’s Equity” on page 6). At Mercer Capital, we recommend a conversation early in the process between company management, the company’s auditors, and the valuation specialist to discuss these issues and select an appropriate methodology.

Originally published in the Financial Reporting Update: Equity Compensation, June 2019.

The Rise of FreightTech

To the lay person, transportation may seem like the farthest end of the spectrum from the technology industry – telephone orders and paper shipment tracking. But those in the know understand just how tech-enabled the industry has become. Advancements in machine learning, artificial intelligence, and predictive technology could have the power to disrupt the way goods are transported, stored, and tracked. And investors are clearly willing to take bets on that.

Over the past few years, FreightTech has emerged as its own category of technology. The level of excitement in the space grew in 2018 as global venture capital investment increased to $2.9 billion from $1.3 billion the prior year. FreightTech is on track for another year of exponential growth in 2019, with $1.6B of funding raised in the first quarter alone.

The willingness of industry participants to adopt logistics technology is evident as well. Corporate players and major OEMs have spun up innovation departments, startup accelerators, and investment arms in order to find and fund new technology. However, it’s not only the companies that directly benefit from this technology that are investing capital in the space. Technology players recognize the potential for returns on transportation investments, too. Alphabet’s venture capital arm, Capital G, led a $185 million investment in Convoy, a tech-enabled freight matching startup, at the end of 2018. The Series C round valued Convoy at $1.0 billion and brought the company’s total capital raise to $265 million. Softbank Vision Fund, known for making big bets on disruptive technology, got in on the game too. The fund invested $1.0 billion in Flexport, a digital platform for freight forwarding and logistics, at the start of the year. The investment valued the company at $3.2 billion.

The table below shows the five largest North American FreightTech investments in the first quarter of 2019 by round size.

Investment in FreightTech has not only grown in terms of aggregate investment, but the average size of deal rounds has increased as well, mirroring the trends in the overall venture capital landscape. According to Morningstar, the average round size for a Series B round in the FreightTech industry increased 78% from $24.5 million in 2014 to $43.6 million in 2017.

The classification of transportation and logistics startups differs, but it is clear that there is growing innovation in many different facets of the industry. It is evident that technological change in the freight transportation industry is about far more than just digitizing processes that once involved paper or fax machines. The application of advanced data and analytics to the transportation and logistics industry has the potential to change the global movement of freight.

Originally published in the Value Focus: Transportation & Logistics, First Quarter 2019.

NADC 2019 Spring Conference Recap

I recently attended the 2019 Spring Conference of the National Auto Dealers Counsel (NADC) in Dana Point, California. This article provides a couple of key takeaways from the day and a half sessions on the current conditions in the industry.

Vehicle Subscription Services

Car subscription services are becoming a popular alternative to leasing. Each service varies in structure and is operated by dealers, manufacturers, and third parties. Some offer reasonable traditional leases or allow customers to make monthly payments, but allow more flexibility/frequency in swapping vehicles for changing preferences and needs.

Some manufacturers are only initially offering subscription services regionally, or in specific markets (BMW and Mercedes-Benz are offering vehicle subscription services in the Nashville market).

Effect of Tariffs on New Vehicle Cost Differences

There has been a lot of talk in the news recently about impending tariffs in the auto dealer industry. Many unknowns and questions remain—Will President Trump enact tariffs? How will they affect the auto industry?

The Center for Automotive Research Report has compiled statistics to show the likely effects of tariffs on new/ used vehicle pricing, estimated losses for dealers, and projected employment and GDP loss (as seen below). With so much at stake, the auto dealer industry will keep a close eye on monitoring any new developments.

Tax Reform Act – Pass Through Entities vs. C Corporations

Amid the many changes that have resulted from the recent tax reform (the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA)), here are a few directly impacting the auto dealer industry:

  • Interest Expense Deduction – Auto dealers are allowed to deduct total interest expense (including floor plan interest) up to 30% of their adjusted taxable income (“ATI”) and still recognize bonus depreciation on their qualified tangible property. If total interest expense is less than 30% of ATI, then the full amount is deductible along with bonus deprecation. If total interest expense is greater than 30% of ATI, auto dealers can deduct the full amount of interest expense, but lose the recognition of the bonus depreciation.
  • Sale/Dissolution Planning – During the year of a potential sale, auto dealers should understand the ramifications of closing the sale earlier in the year versus later in the year. An earlier sale in the year could limit the wages for that year’s tax return that could offset a large ordinary income event from LIFO and depreciation recapture and other ordinary income. Whenever possible, contact your accountant or tax planning consultants to discuss the timing of a proposed sale.
  • Pass Through Entities vs. C Corporations – While there are many other legal considerations for choosing your entity structure, the TCJA has had an impact on the valuation of C Corporations. Specifically, the value of C Corporations has increased by approximately 15%, all other factors, due to the decline in the corporate tax rates. To learn more about the impact of the changing corporate tax rates on C Corporation valuations, read this recent article.

Originally published in the Value Focus: Auto Dealer Industry Newsletter, Year-End 2018.

Measuring Up: Sorting Through the Puzzle of Dealership Metrics and Performance Statistics

This article explains dealership metrics and performance statistics–what they mean, how to evaluate them, and where a particular store stacks up. As always, performance measures are relative. We are relying upon averages provided by NADA as well as our experience working with auto dealers.1

A few key terms help frame our discussion:

  • Variable operations refers to new vehicle department, used vehicle department, finance & insurance department, excluding warranty sales
  • Fixed operations refers to service department (including warranty), parts department, and body shop where applicable
  • Front-end gross margin refers to the gross profit margin realized on the sale of new and used vehicles; front-end margin typically varies in amounts between new and used vehicles depending on the franchise and types of cars being sold
  • Domestic dealerships as defined by NADA typically consist of Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep/Ram/Fiat (FCA)
  • Luxury dealerships as defined by NADA typically consist of Acura, Audi, BMW, Infiniti, Jaguar/Land Rover, Lexus, Mercedes Benz, Porsche, and Volvo
  • Import dealerships typically consist of Acura, Audi, BMW, Hyundai, Infiniti, Jaguar/Land Rover, Kia, Lexus, Mazda, Mercedes Benz, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Porsche, Subaru, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo
  • Mass-market dealerships as defined by NADA typically consist of Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep/ Ram/Fiat (FCA), Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mitsubishi, Mazda, Subaru, Toyota, and Volkswagen
  • High-line or ultra high-line dealerships may consist of Lamborghini, Rolls Royce, Bentley, Aston Martin, Lotus, McLaren, Maserati, etc.

Specifically, we are relying upon information from the average dealership profile for 2017 and 2018 from NADA.2

New Vehicle Department

For the average dealership profile, our experience has been that this department comprises between 50% – 60% (58% for 2017-2018 per NADA) of total gross sales. The front-end gross margin on new vehicles can vary over time and is somewhat controlled by the manufacturer. Typically, dealerships track and measure front-end gross margin on a per unit basis and can evaluate the overall performance of that figure by comparing it to prior years. Most domestic, import, or luxury dealerships experience a lower front-end gross margin on new vehicles than on used vehicles. Conversely, most high-line dealerships experience a higher front-end gross margin on new vehicles than on used vehicles.

New vehicles generally have a higher average retail selling price, lower front-end gross margins, and sell fewer units than used vehicles. These factors result in new vehicles comprising approximately 25% of total overall gross profits for an average dealership.

Used Vehicle Department

For the average dealership profile, our experience has been that this department comprises between 25% – 40% of total gross sales. These percentages can vary depending on franchise/dealership type and regional location. Like new vehicles, dealerships also track frontend gross profits on used vehicles on a per unit basis. Most domestic, import, or luxury dealerships experience a higher front-end gross margin on used vehicles than on new vehicles.

The sale of used vehicles should not be overlooked when assessing the value of a dealership. More often than not front-end gross margins on used vehicles will be higher than new vehicles. Additionally, the sale of both new and used vehicles put more cars in service and help drive profitability to fixed operations (to be discussed in next section). Based on our experience valuing new car dealerships, the range of used retail vehicles sold to new retail vehicles sold is 1.00 to 1.25. This figure can vary by dealership and can also be quite cyclical throughout the year. Further, our experience shows this ratio can climb to 1.5 to 1.6 when considering dealerships with successful wholesale used vehicle sales.

Used vehicles generally have a lower average retail selling price, higher front-end gross margins, and sell more units than new vehicles. These factors result in used vehicles comprising approximately 25% of total overall gross profits for an average dealership, or about even with the total overall gross profit contribution from new vehicles.

Fixed Operations

The long-term success of a dealership’s fixed operations is often tied to their effectiveness in selling new and used vehicles over time. These activities help to build brand in a market. Another critical factor in the success and level of profitability in the fixed operations is the auto industry cycle. In our last issue, we discussed the cyclicality of the industry not only in terms of certain months during the year, but also year-over-year.

Two such indicators of the auto industry life cycle are the SAAR and the average age of car. As shown on page 14 of the newsletter, the monthly SAAR began to level off in late 2018 and into the first few months of 2019 (despite a slight spike in March 2019) evidencing slower new light vehicle sales. Additionally, per our previous newsletter, the average age of cars in service was approximately ten years.

Both factors foreshadow that fixed operations of successful dealerships should experience an uptick in the short-term and mitigate the moderate/sluggish new vehicle sales. When customers hold onto their cars longer, they are less likely to spend money on a new or used vehicle, but their maintenance needs on their current vehicle will likely increase.

For the average dealership profile, our experience suggests that the service department comprises between 10% – 15% of total gross sales. However, this department is typically the most profitable in terms of a percentage of sales. The combination of much higher margins on lower sales results in the service department averaging 45% – 50% of total gross profits, or a much higher contribution level than new or used vehicles.


All dealerships are not created equally. This article is a general discussion on various dealership metrics and performance statistics. Each statistic is relative and not to be viewed in a vacuum. Hopefully, we have provided a better understanding of the various departments, including fixed vs. variable operations and their contribution to overall profitability and the eventual value of a store. A graphic display of historical profitability and other metrics are discussed later in the newsletter. For an understanding of how your dealership is performing along with an indication of what your store is worth, contact us. We are happy to discuss your needs in confidence.

1 The data and discussion are based generally on average dealership profiles and do not pertain specifically to domestic dealerships, import dealerships, ultra high-line dealerships, etc. Specific types of dealerships and their regional location could have different performance metrics and criteria.

2 It’s important to note that other national sources of Blue Sky multiple data (Haig Partners and Kerrigan Advisors) classify the categories of dealerships slightly different from NADA, so all comparisons and discussion should be done in general terms.

Originally published in the Value Focus: Auto Dealer Industry Newsletter, Year-End 2018.

How to Present Complex Finance to Judges

Originally presented at the 2019 AAML/BVR National Divorce Conference in Las Vegas, in this session, Z. Christopher Mercer, FASA, CFA, ABAR delves into more than 30 years of experience presenting complex valuation and damages issues to judges and juries.  One of the key ideas of effective communication is the KISS principle, or “keep it simple, stupid.” The question is, how can we do that?  Chris provides the techniques and templates necessary to communicate your position, and your opponent’s position, in such a way that judges can hone in on and understand the most important information and why it’s important.

Labor Shortage in Trucking Sector

Driver Shortage

The trucking industry is wedged between a rock and a hard place when it comes to driver recruitment. Trucking companies are simultaneously exploring self-driving technology, while still convincing new entrants to the labor market that commercial driving is a career choice that will pay off. Punctuating the less-than-glamorous work and lifestyle conditions of the occupation, those entering the labor force realize that the career path could be upended in the near-term by the economic cycle and disrupted in the long term by the impending evolution of autonomous transportation. With several companies (like Tesla) beginning deployment of self-driving trucks, and numerous others deep in development of the technology, young workers may fear choosing a vocation that trucking companies are actively planning to automate.

Rob Sandlin, CEO of Patriot Transportation, emphasized these challenges in the company’s third quarter earnings call, “Management spends a good deal of time dealing with these issues surrounding driver shortage, including advertising, recruiting, compensation, dispatcher training and productivity among others.” With the tightening of the labor market, companies have found new ways to attract talent including investments in newer and more reliable assets, in-house training programs, incentive bonuses, and, of course, a simple increase in wages.

Executives at many of the largest trucking companies dedicated time in their third quarter investor calls and presentations to this issue. PAM identified several unique recruitment initiatives in its November corporate presentation. The company is taking advantage of temporary visitor qualifications through the B1 Visa program to increase labor capacity. This program allows commercial drivers with Mexican residence temporary entry to the United States for truck delivery. Additionally, the company’s new driver-friendly initiatives promote lifestyle and career improvements. Its “Driver Life-Cycle” program provides dedicated driver experience with a path towards ownership through a lease-to-own set up.

Patriot mentioned significant changes to its recruitment efforts, as well. “In the latter part of fiscal 2018, we implemented a significant change to our hiring process, we added [a] driver advocate position and introduced productivity-based driver pay, all in an effort to attract and retain drivers. We are encouraged by the increased number of drivers hired and in training since these implementations, and we’ll continue to monitor our progress for any needed adjustments to our plan.”

Mechanic Shortage

The driver shortage (which is estimated to reach 108,000 by 2026) has sparked major shifts in the way hiring and training are conducted in the industry. While this shortage will hurt shippers until autonomous technology is fully developed, the long-term problem may actually lie in another labor pool: service technicians.

As new truck designs increase the level of technology on board, those who service them will have to develop more tech-focused expertise. Additional sensors, predictive technology, and, of course, autonomy will evolve the role of the truck mechanic as they start spending more time with computers than wrenches. While technical colleges and certificate programs continue to produce a skilled workforce, the supply of service technicians has not kept pace with the increasing demand.

Trucking companies have had to adapt to the shifting labor force trends and find new ways to fulfill maintenance needs. Like driver scarcity, mechanic shortages have caused companies to seek alternatives to traditional labor sourcing, from outsourcing labor needs to developing training programs.

Overall, employment in the transportation and warehousing industry grew 3.5% from October 2017 to October 2018, adding more than 183,700 jobs. Nearly 37,000 of these jobs were in the trucking industry, which experienced a 2.5% increase in employment over the prior year. The transportation industries are adding jobs faster than the overall non-farm economy, which experienced a more modest 1.7% increase in employment.

Despite labor pressures in the industry, economic activity and transportation demand remain strong. While executives will continue to monitor driver and mechanic shortages, the outlook for trucking in 2019 appears optimistic. John Roberts III, CEO of J.B. Hunt, summed up the industry sentiment well on the company’s third quarter earnings call.

Just final comment on the people side of things. Driver hiring has been a challenge. It’s been a challenge in the past. It presented us with the challenge like we have never seen before this year. In fact, our unseated need number got as high as [it’s] ever been. In about the last 60 days, we’ve seen that number come down a little bit through a number of internal efforts. And I think overall pay in the industry is starting to catch up a little bit. And so I think more people are becoming interested. But we’re making progress there and feel confident we’ll continue to get through that. Good year, some challenges, and frankly, we’re looking forward to heading into 2019.

Originally published in the Value Focus: Transportation & Logistics, Fourth Quarter 2018.

Net Interest Margin Trends and Expectations

Since Bank Watch’s last review of net interest margin (“NIM”) trends in July 2016, the Federal Open Market Committee has raised the federal funds rate eight times after what was then the first rate hike (December 2015) since mid2006. With the past two years of rate hikes and current pause in Fed actions, it’s a good vantage point to look at the effect of interest rate movements on the NIM of small and large community banks (defined as banks with $100 million to $1 billion of assets and $1 billion to $10 billion of assets).

As shown in Figure 1, NIMs crashed in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, primarily because asset yields fell much quicker than banks could reprice term deposits. NIMs subsequently rebounded as the asset refinancing wave subsided while banks were able to lower deposit rates. A several year period then occurred in which asset yields grinded lower at a time when deposit rates could not be reduced. This period was particularly tough for commercial banks with a high level of non-interest bearing deposits.

Since rate hikes started, the NIM for both small and large community banks have increased about 20bps through year-end 2018 before experiencing some pressure in early 2019. The nine hikes by the Fed to a target funds rate of 2.25% to 2.50% amounts to a 225bps increase.

At first pass, the expansion in the NIMs is less than might be expected; however, there are always a number of factors in bank balance sheets that will impact the NIM, including:

  • Loan Floors. Many Libor- and prime-based commercial loans had floors that required 100-150bps of hikes before the floors were “out-of-the-money.”
  • Competition. Intense competition for loans in an environment in which bonds yielded very little resulted in pressure in the margin over a base rate as bank and non-bank lenders accepted lower margins in order to make loans.
  • Asset Mix. Community banks located in rural and semi-rural areas tend to have low loan-to-deposit ratios and, therefore, have not benefited as much as peers located in and around MSAs that are “loaned-up.” Nonetheless, net loans as a percentage of assets among community banks increased by an average of 15bps each quarter since year-end 2016 while bond portfolios declined.
  • Loan Mix. Community banks tend to have somewhat more of their loan portfolios allocated to residential mortgages and CRE than regional banks. As a result, it will take much longer for these mostly fixed-rate assets to reprice than Libor-based C&I portfolios.
  • Deposit COF. In recent quarters the marginal cost of funds (“COF”) has become expensive as depositors who came to accept being paid essentially nothing for their money began to demand more competitive rates once the Fed Funds rate approached 2%.
  • Deposit Mix. In addition to depositors demanding higher rates, a mix shift from non-interest bearing and very low-yielding transaction accounts into higher paying money markets and time deposits has pushed the COF higher, too, in recent quarters.

Fed to Cut Rates?

Recent incremental pressure on NIMs notwithstanding, community banks’ balance sheets were poised to take advantage of rising rates the past several years. The outperformance of bank stocks beginning in November 2016 reflected several factors, including an economic and regulatory backdrop that would allow the Fed to raise rates further and faster, and thereby support NIM expansion.

The underperformance of bank stocks since last fall reflects investor concern that this tailwind is ending in addition to more general concerns about what a possible economic slowdown implies for credit costs. Telltale signs include the inversion of the Treasury yield curve and yields on the two-year and five-year Treasuries that, as of the date of the drafting of this article, are below the low-end of the Fed Funds target range.

Also, the spot and forward curves for 30-day Libor imply the Fed will cut the Funds target rate and other short-term policy rates one or two times by early 2020 (or stated differently, the December rate hike was a mistake).

The Federal Funds rate, the predominant influence on short-term interest rates, has remained unchanged since year-end 2018 at a target range of 2.25%–2.50% due to concerns about lower inflation figures and what they may forewarn about future economic growth as reflected in falling U.S. Treasury yields. The FOMC reiterated its wait-and-see approach on May 1. However, the sand appears to be shifting beneath the Fed’s feet.

The Wall Street Journal’s most recent Economic Forecasting Survey revealed an increasing belief that the Fed’s next move will be to cut rates. 51% of respondents said that a rate cut would be the next move, up from 44% in April. 25.5% replied that the next rate raise would occur in 2020 or later. Fed officials have maintained their stance that a rate move in either direction will not occur soon.

The Importance of Deposits and Next Steps

As deposit costs initially lagged, but more recently moved with short-term interest rate hikes, the composition of a bank’s deposit base and funding structure has become increasingly important. As shown in Figure 4, the percentage of banks experiencing a rising cost of interest bearing deposits has steadily increased. Total funding costs have nearly doubled since year-end 2016 as depositors have reoriented funds toward accounts offering higher rates. Banks searching for funding either must engage in intense deposit competition or tap into higher-cost sources such as wholesale funding.

Going forward community banks may face a modest reduction in NIMs because the yield curve is flat and the cost of incremental funding is expensive. Some community banks will choose to slow loan growth in order to protect margins; others will accept a lower margin. The predicament demonstrates yet again why deposit franchises are a key consideration for acquirers as banks with low cost deposit franchises and excess liquidity are particularly attractive in the current market.

Originally published in Bank Watch, May 2019.

Employee Benefits Agency Consolidation and Valuation

Lucas Parris, CFA, ASA-BV/IA, vice president, co-presented the session, “Employee Benefits Agency Consolidation and Valuation” with Mike Strakhov (Live Oak Bank) at the 2019 Workplace Benefits Renaissance Conference in Nashville, TN (February 20-22,2019).

A short description of the session can be found below.

Insurance agency merger and acquisition activity has been at historic levels for the past few years. Employee benefit agency transactions represent a significant number of these annually. This session will address the current state of agency consolidation including trends, who’s buying and who’s selling and the overall impact to employee benefits distribution. We’ll also identify and discuss the important characteristics that drive value of an employee benefits agency.

The Importance of Fairness Opinions in Transactions

It has been 34 years since the Delaware Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case Smith v. Van Gorkom, (Trans Union), (488 A. 2d Del. 1985) and thereby made the issuance of fairness opinions de rigueur in M&A and other significant corporate transactions. The backstory of Trans Union is the board approved an LBO that was engineered by the CEO without hiring a financial advisor to vet a transaction that was presented to them without any supporting materials.

Why would the board approve a transaction without extensive review? Perhaps there were multiple reasons, but bad advice and price probably were driving factors.  An attorney told the board they could be sued if they did not approve a transaction that provided a hefty premium ($55 per share vs a trading range in the high $30s).

Although the Delaware Supreme Court found that the board acted in good faith, they had been grossly negligent in approving the offer. The Court expanded the concept of the Business Judgment Rule to include the duty of care in addition to the duties to act in good faith and loyalty.  The Trans Union board did not make an informed decision even though the takeover price was attractive. The process by which a board goes about reaching a decision can be just as important as the decision itself.

Directors are generally shielded from challenges to corporate actions the board approves under the Business Judgement Rule provided there is not a breach of one of the three duties; however, once any of the three duties is breached the burden of proof shifts from the plaintiffs to the directors.  In Trans Union the Court suggested had the board obtained a fairness opinion it would have been protected from liability for breach of the duty of care.

The suggestion was consequential.  Fairness opinions are now issued in significant corporate transactions for virtually all public companies and many private companies and banks with minority shareholders that are considering a take-over, material acquisition, or other significant transaction.

When to Get a Fairness Opinion

Although not as widely practiced, there has been a growing trend for fairness opinions to be issued by independent financial advisors who are hired to solely evaluate the transaction as opposed to the banker who is paid a success fee in addition to receiving a fee for issuing a fairness opinion.

While the following is not a complete list, consideration should be given to obtaining a fairness opinion if one or more of these situations are present:

  • There is only one offer for the bank and competing bids have not been solicited
  • Competing bids have been received that are different in price and structure (e.g., cash vs stock)
  • The shares to be received from the acquiring bank are not publicly traded and, therefore, the value ascribed to the shares is open to interpretation
  • Insiders negotiated the transaction or are proposing to acquire the bank
  • Shareholders face dilution from additional capital that will be provided by insiders
  • Varying offers are made to different classes of shareholders
  • There is concern that the shareholders fully understand that considerable efforts were expended to assure fairness to all parties

What’s Included (and What’s Not) in a Fairness Opinion

A fairness opinion involves a review of a transaction from a financial point of view that considers value (as a range concept) and the process the board followed. The financial advisor must look at pricing, terms, and consideration received in the context of the market for similar banks. The advisor then opines that the consideration to be received (sell-side) or paid (buy-side) is fair from a financial point of view of shareholders (particularly minority shareholders) provided the analysis leads to such a conclusion.

The fairness opinion is a short document, typically a letter.  The supporting work behind the fairness opinion letter is substantial, however, and is presented in a separate fairness memorandum or equivalent document.

A well-developed fairness opinion will be based upon the following considerations that are expounded upon in an analysis that accompanies the opinion:

  • A review of the proposed transaction, including terms and price and the process the board followed to reach an agreement
  • The subject company’s capital table/structure
  • Financial performance and factors impacting earnings
  • Management’s current year budget and multi-year forecast
  • Valuation analysis that considers multiple methods that provide the basis to develop a range of value to compare with the proposed transaction price
  • The investment characteristics of the shares to be received (or issued), including the pro-forma impact on the buyer’s capital structure, regulatory capital ratios, earnings capacity, accretion/dilution to EPS, TBVPS, DPS
  • Address the source of funds for the buyer and any risk funding may not be available

It is important to note what a fairness opinion does not prescribe, including:

  • What the highest obtainable price may be
  • The advisability of the action the board is taking versus an alternative
  • Where a company’s shares may trade in the future
  • How shareholders should vote a proxy
  • The reasonableness of compensation that may be paid to executives as a result of the transaction

Due diligence work is crucial to the development of the fairness opinion because there is no bright line test that consideration to be received or paid is fair or not.  Mercer Capital has nearly four decades of experience in assessing bank (and non-bank) transactions and the issuance of fairness opinions.  Please call if we can assist your board.

Originally appeared in Mercer Capital’s Bank Watch, April 2019

How to Value an Early-State FinTech Company

Jay D. Wilson, Jr., CFA, ASA, CBA, Vice President, presented “How to Value an Early-State FinTech Company” at the ICBA ThinkTech Accelerator on February 28th, 2019 in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Learning objectives include:

  • Pinpointing the external and internal factors that drive a FinTech company’s value
  • Recognizing how investor preferences can impact valuation 
  • Understanding when an early-stage FinTech company will need a valuation performed 
  • Identifying the basic valuation approaches for FinTech companies
  • Reviewing early-stage FinTech company case studies 


How to Value a Business & Situations That Give Rise to a Valuation

Karolina Calhoun, CPA/ABV/CFF, Vice President, presented “How to Value a Business & Situations That Give Rise to a Valuation” at the Tennessee Society of CPAs West Tennessee Chapter monthly meeting in Jackson, TN.

The valuation of a business can be a complex process, requiring accredited business valuation and forensic accounting professionals. This session will take a deep dive into the process and methodologies used in a valuation. Also covered will be the situations that give rise to valuation services such as estate/tax planning, ESOP annual valuation, M&A transactions, GAAP/ financial reporting, family law marital dissolution, buy-sell disputes, and corporate litigation.

Collaborative Divorce: An Alternative to Reduce Tension and Cost

In traditional divorces, each spouse engages a lawyer who fights hard to “win.” Their weapons can include bringing in their own financial professional to value financial assets. Naturally the neutrality of those valuations may be suspect in the other party’s eyes, even if the valuator follows all proper procedures. In collaborative divorce, each spouse still hires a lawyer, but the goal is to reach a settlement that satisfies each party. Neutral consultants, such as financial and mental health professionals, are also frequently involved. The model is “troubleshoot and problem-solve” rather than “fight and win.”

How Collaborative Divorce Works

The collaboration is carried out through a series of meetings in which the couples and their attorneys negotiate over issues such as property division, alimony, child support and custody. The meetings are quarterbacked by the mental health professional, who prioritizes the goals for each session, monitors the emotional climate, and keeps things on track. The attorneys each are responsible to look out for the interests of their clients, but rather than using the law to win, they are more focused on making sure their clients understand the legal issues involved and how a court might view them. The role of the financial professional, who is paid by both parties, is to provide an objective assessment of the financial issues involved. If one of the spouses has a business, the financial neutral provides an arm’s-length valuation and can also serve to educate the other spouse about the business, if needed. After several meetings, the financial neutral produces a marital balance sheet, laying out the couple’s financial landscape.

Advantages of Collaborative Divorce

While collaborative divorce is not for everyone, in the right settings it can have these advantages:

A Quicker Resolution

Divorces litigated through the court system can often take a year or more to reach a conclusion. The collaborative process can move faster because there is no waiting for motions to be filed and hearings to be held.

Lower Expense

Attorneys likely will have fewer billable hours since there is less engagement with the courts. There is only one financial consultant rather than two. In addition, because litigated cases tend to take more time, there may be a need for revised valuations as economic conditions change while the divorce makes its way through the process.

Less Acrimony

While there certainly can be tension between the two spouses during the collaborative process, the temperature tends to be lower when the working model is problem-solving rather than fighting. The addition of a mental health professional to the team also can serve to defuse tensions, and the neutrality of the financial professional can serve to reduce distrust.

More Control

When divorce cases reach the courtroom, subjective judgments by the judge can come into play. While Tennessee law spells out guidelines for judges in divorces, they still have latitude.

More Privacy

Divorce settlements litigated through the courts become public record. Settlements that result from the collaborative process do not. This can be of particular importance when one or both spouses are high-profile.


Collaborative divorce is not for everyone. Sometimes distrust between the parties has become so intense that litigation is the only way out. However, many divorcing spouses have found that a collaborative process can reduce tensions and cost and provide a result satisfactory to both parties. Attorneys can benefit from numerous services provided by financial professionals in litigated and collaborative divorce matters. At Mercer Capital, we have two professionals who are trained in the Collaborative Practice and provide assistance to attorneys in collaborative and litigated divorce matters. Please contact us if we can be of assistance to you and your clients.

Originally published in Mercer Capital’s Tennessee Family Law Newsletter, First Quarter 2019.

What Is a Lifestyle Analysis and Why Is it Important?

A lifestyle analysis is an analysis of each party’s sources of income and expenses. It is used in the divorce process to demonstrate the standard of living during the marriage and to determine the living expenses and spending habits of each spouse. It is typically a more in-depth analysis than the financial affidavits required in the divorce process and is prepared by a forensic accountant. The details in the analysis serve as verification of net worth and income, and expense statements submitted by both spouses can help a judge determine the equitable distribution of marital assets as well as alimony needs.

The lifestyle analysis pulls together all considerations and provides a visual of income and expenses over the remaining life expectancy. Through illustration of the aggregate sources of income(s) and expenses over time, one can discern what funds are actually required (and if these funds are available) to maintain standard of living, i.e., to fund expenses. The exercise then yields relative analyses (percentage comparisons and trend analyses), and ultimately, an illustration of net worth at a point in time, as well as net worth accumulation over time.

Factors Considered for Spousal Support

In Tennessee, the Decree for support of spouse is under § 36-5-121(i). Careful consideration must be given to the factors listed in the statute when determining historical lifestyle (standard of living) as well as reasonable need into the future. Twelve factors assist in determining whether the granting of an order for payment of support and maintenance to a party is appropriate, as well as determining the nature, amount, length of term, and manner of payment. Refer to § 36-5-121(i) for the full listing.

Although each of the factors must be considered when relevant to the parties’ circumstances, the first factor, “the relative earning capacity, obligations, needs, and financial resources of each party, including income from pension, profit sharing or retirement plans and all other sources,” has presented the two most important components: the disadvantaged spouse’s need and the obligor spouse’s ability to pay.

Hence arises the “pay & need analysis,” also known as the “lifestyle analysis.”

Sources of Financial Information Used in the Analysis

The following documentation provides financial information used in the analysis and is typically requested during the discovery process.

  • Tax returns
  • Brokerage accounts
  • Retirement, pension accounts
  • Bank, debit card, credit card statements
  • Personal financial statements
  • Loan applications
  • Insurance policies (cash surrender value)
  • Mortgage statements
  • Trusts, wills
  • Deeds to home, vehicles, motorboats, etc.
  • Annuity, stock certificates, deposit box
  • Business valuations
  • Appraisals of tangible items (artwork, collectibles, etc), among others

The Process: Building a Lifestyle Analysis

There are many moving pieces in constructing the lifestyle analysis, and the components can be quite different from case to case. During the preliminary stages, the financial expert/ forensic accountant will obtain pertinent documents from the aforementioned documentation in order to create the marital balance sheet (and potential separate property) and assess historical and current earnings and expenses/spending habits. Additionally, the expert may also assist in building a budget based on historical expenses. The expert will review retirement plans and annual contributions, brokerage accounts, cash & savings accounts, their respective average rates of return as well as varying tax obligations. The risk tolerance of the individuals can even be considered in relation to future rates of return. For example, a person with ample disposable cash may be willing to invest in riskier ventures where the return may be higher, than a person who chooses to invest conservatively due to limited disposable cash.

The investigative process may even lead the parties to establish the “true income” of a spouse who is suspecting of perpetrating fraud and determine any possible hidden assets or dissipation of marital assets.

Ultimately, the lifestyle analysis illustrates the sources of income, tax obligations, and disposable cash before and after expected expenses. This tool is valuable because it leads to further analyses such as relative analyses of gross earnings comparisons and after-tax disposable cash comparisons, among others. The analysis allows comparison on relative terms not just dollar amounts.

Another valuable result of the lifestyle analysis is the ability to assess the parties’ net worth at multiple points in time. The net worth accumulation analysis illustrates the differences of the division of net worth at the date of divorce, and the division of net worth at the date of death. Additionally, it illustrates the net worth accumulation between those two points in time. This process may highlight what appears to be reasonable at a point in time, may or may not be reasonable when extracted over time. When used as trial demonstratives, the illustration can assist the trier of facts in determining the disadvantaged spouse’s need and the obligor spouse’s ability to pay.

For a fact pattern and step-by-step illustration, refer to my Lifestyle / Pay & Need Analysis presentation from the 2018 AICPA Forensic & Business Valuation Conference.


In financial situations that may be scrutinized by regulators, courts, tax collectors, and a myriad of other lurking adversaries, the financial, economic, and accounting experience and skills of a financial expert are invaluable. The details in the lifestyle analysis can help determine the equitable distribution of marital assets as well as alimony needs.

Because no two cases are alike, all components of the analysis must be carefully assessed. Complexities that may need further consideration include, but are not limited to:

  • Earnings capacity: need for a vocational expert?
  • Differences in retirement plans (such as tax structure & penalties): qualified vs non-qualified, Roth vs Traditional, pensions, etc.
  • Investment risk profiles: risky vs risk averse (hence, annual returns may differ)
  • Alimony requested: duration, dollar amount, type
  • Business ownership: valuations, personal vs. enterprise goodwill, active vs. passive appreciation (i.e., marital vs. separate)
  • Deferred compensation:
  • Stock options and restricted stock (both vested and unvested) • Election 83(b): timing of tax on restricted stock
  • Short-term and long-term incentive plans (bonuses), among others

A competent financial expert will be able to define and quantify the financial aspects of a case and effectively communicate the conclusion. For more information or to discuss your matter, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Originally published in Mercer Capital’s Tennessee Family Law Newsletter, First Quarter 2019.

Takeaways from AOBA 2019: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

I ventured into the Arizona desert again this year to Bank Director’s Acquire or Be Acquired Conference (“AOBA”) in Phoenix in late January. This year I was struck by the dichotomous outlook for the banking sector that reminded me of Dicken’s famous line: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

The Best of Times

The weather was lovely. Phoenix/Scottsdale is the place to be in late January, and this year did not disappoint with sunny weather and a high of around 70 each day. At the same time, much of the country was feeling the effects of a severe polar vortex that caused temperatures to plunge well below zero in the Upper Midwest and Great Plains. Many of the attendees from that area were forced to stay a day or two longer due to airline cancellations.

The operating environment for banks reflected a similar analogous dichotomy. Take the market for example. Most banks produced very good earnings in 2018, and many produced record earnings due to a good economy, the reduction in corporate tax rates, and margin relief as the Fed raised short-term interest rates four times further distancing itself from the zero interest rate policy (“ZIRP”) implemented in late 2008.

The Worst of Times

Nonetheless, bank stocks, along with most industry sectors, were crushed in the fourth quarter. The SNL Small Cap US and Large Cap US Bank Indices declined 16% and 17% respectively. Several AOBA sessions opined that valuations based on price-to-forward earnings multiples were at “financial crisis” levels as investors debated how much the economy could slow in 2019 and 2020 and thereby produce much lower earnings than Wall Street’s consensus estimates.

Within the industry the best of times vs. worst of times (or not as good of times) theme extended to size. Unlike past eras when small (to a point) was viewed as an advantage relative to large banks, the consensus has flipped. Large banks today are seen as having a net advantage in creating operating leverage, technology spending, better mobile products for the all-important millennials, and greater success in driving deposit growth.

Additionally, one presenter noted that larger publicly traded banks that are acquisitive have been able to acquire smaller targets at lower price/tangible book multiples than the multiple at which the shares issued for the target trade in the public market and thereby incur no or minimal dilution to tangible BVPS.


The most thought provoking sessions dealt with the intensifying impact of technology. Technology is not a new subject matter for AOBA, but the increasingly larger crowds that attended technology-focused sessions demonstrated this issue is on the minds of many bankers and directors. While technology is a tool to be used to deliver banking services, I think the unasked question most were thinking was: “What are implications of technology on the value of my bank?”

Several sessions noted big banks that once hemorrhaged market share are proving to be adept at deposit gathering in larger metro markets while community banks still perform relatively well in second-tier and small markets. Technology is helping drive this trend, especially among millennials who do not care much about brick-and-mortar but demand top-notch digital access. The efficiency and technology gap between large and small banks is widening according to the data, while both small and large banks are battling new FinTech entrants as well as each other.

Not all technology-related discussions were negative, however. Digital payment network Zelle (owned indirectly by Bank of America, BB&T, Capital One, JPMorgan Chase, PNC, US Bank, and Wells Fargo) has grown rapidly since it launched in 2017. Payment volume in dollar terms now exceeds millennial-favorite Venmo, which is owned by PayPal. Also, JPMorgan Chase rolled-out a new online brokerage offering that offers free trades for clients in an effort to add new brokerage and banking clients while also protecting its existing customer franchise.

Steps to Create Value

In addition to the best of times/worst of times theme, I picked up several ideas about what actions banks large and small can take to create value.

Create a Digital/FinTech Roadmap for Your Bank

There was a standing room only crowd for the day one FinXTech session: “The Next Wave of Innovation.” This stood in stark contrast to the first AOBA conference I attended which was during the financial crisis. Technology was hardly mentioned then and most sessions focused on failed bank acquisitions. Clearly, this year’s crowd proved that technology is top of mind for many bankers even if the roadmap is hazy. A key takeaway is that a digital technology roadmap must be weaved into the strategic plan so that an institution will be positioned to take advantage of the opportunity that technology creates to enhance customer service and lower costs. Further, emerging trends suggest that technology may help in assessing credit risk beyond credit scores. To assist banks in creating a FinTech roadmap, Bank Director recently unveiled a new project called FinXTech Connect that provides a tool bankers can use to consider and analyze potential FinTech partners.

Become a “Triple Threat” Bank

During our (Mercer Capital) session, Andy Gibbs and I argued for becoming a “triple threat” bank, noting that banks with higher fee income, superior efficiency ratios, and greater technology spending were being rewarded in the public market with better valuations all else equal (see table below). While we do not advocate for heavy tech spending as a means to an ill-defined objective, the evidence points to a superior valuation when technology is used to drive higher levels of fee income and greater operating leverage. For more information, view our slide deck.

Plan for the Good and Bad Times, Especially for the Bad Times

While there was a lot of discussion about an eventual slowdown in the economy and an inflection in the credit cycle, several sessions highlighted that a downturn will represent the best opportunity for those who are well prepared to grow. The key takeaway is to have a plan for both the good and the bad economic times to seize opportunity. Technology can play a role in a downturn by helping add customers at very low incremental costs.

Best Practices around Traditional M&A

On the M&A front, two M&A nuggets from attorneys stood out as well as a note about MOEs (mergers of equals):

  • Sullivan & Cromwell’s Rodgin Cohen suggested that buyers should determine what the counterparty wants and structure the transaction to achieve the counterparty’s objectives. Also, buyers need to “ride the circuit” to meet with potential acquisition candidates well before a decision to sell is made, while sellers need to know what they want to achieve before launching a sales process.
  • Howard & Howard’s Michael Bell, a leading attorney to credit unions, had an interesting session where he noted commercial bankers should actively court credit unions as potential acquirers in a marketing process because credit unions’ lower operating cost structures and tax-exempt status can produce a better cash price for the seller.
  • A few sessions discussed the potential for MOEs to create value for both banks’ shareholders through creating scale and by combining banks with different areas of strength. In addition, MOEs create an opportunity to upgrade technology while addressing costly legacy systems, including extensive branch networks. All three themes were addressed in two large MOEs announced in 2019 by TCF/Chemical and BB&T/SunTrust.


We will likely be back at AOBA next year and hope to see you there. In the meantime, if you have questions or wish to discuss a valuation or transaction need in confidence, don’t hesitate to contact us.

Tax Law Changes Affecting Family Law: 2019 Changes and Recap of 2018 Changes

2019 Changes

By now, many are familiar with the changes from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), however, specific changes related to family law and alimony deductibility went into effect in 2019.

  • Alimony Payments. Effective January 1, 2019, alimony payments are no longer deductible to the payer spouse, and are no longer taxed to the recipient spouse. This applies to divorces finalized, by settlement agreement or court order, on or after January 1, 2019. Under the prior law, alimony was deductible to the payer, reducing income and basis for taxes, and taxed to the recipient, increasing income and basis for taxes. The change is permanent and will not sunset, like some of the TCJA amendments.
  • Income from Trusts. Also, under the prior law, income of a (alimony) trust paid to the ex-spouse was taxable to the recipient and not to the grantor. The TCJA eliminated that rule.
  • Existing Agreements and Modification Requests. Existing alimony or marital dissolution agreements, as well as any modification requests, are grandfathered to pre-January 1, 2019 rules as per existing agreements, unless both parties mutually consent and specifically opt to implement new rules. Alimony modification requests made January 1, 2019 and after will require recognition of the changes of the tax law.

Recap of 2018 Changes

We discussed many of these in a prior newsletter. The changes are as follows.

  • Personal Exemptions. Under the new tax law, personal exemptions are eliminated. Previously, personal exemptions were often used during divorce settlement negotiations with the parties splitting these deductions and sometimes one spouse compensating the other spouse to “purchase” the use of this exemption.
  • 529 Plans. The new tax law expands the use of 529 plans to include secondary education and other uses, whereas it was previously only available for college and higher education. Often, 529 plan accounts exist in a marital estate and become a topic discussed during settlement negotiations for how/when they will be used.
  • Business Valuation. TCJA reduced corporate income tax rate from 35% to 21%. The valuation of C corporations could be higher simply due to the mechanics of income approaches to value a business, all other factors held equal.
  • Child Tax Credit. The TCJA increased the credit to $2,000 and the income phase-out increased to $200,000 ($400,000 for joint filers).
  • Other Deductions. TCJA repealed legal and accounting fees related to taxable alimony, divorce-related tax planning, and related analysis. The TCJA suspends the miscellaneous deductions through Dec. 31, 2025. This also applies to professional fees related to splitting of Individual Retirement Accounts or ERISA plans (e.g., QDRO fees).

For more information, see this helpful reference.

Originally published in Mercer Capital’s Tennessee Family Law Newsletter, First Quarter 2019.

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