Buyer’s Remorse? CI Financial’s M&A Binge
On the earnings call last week, CI Financial reiterated intentions to separate its U.S. wealth management business and Canadian asset management business through an IPO of its U.S. wealth management business.
CI’s CEO Kurt MacAlpine reported continued progress toward the IPO and announced an anticipated S-1 filing later this month. After the transaction, the U.S. wealth management business will trade on the U.S. exchange, while the legacy Canadian asset management business will be delisted from the NYSE and traded exclusively on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
Since MacAlpine took the helm as CEO in 2019, CI has quickly made a name for itself as one of the more prolific acquirors of U.S. wealth management businesses. Driven by a rapid succession of deals, CI increased its U.S. wealth management AUM more than tenfold in just two years—from C$15.5 billion on October 31, 2020, to C$171.9 billion on October 31, 2022.
CI’s share price has fallen over 40% this year
While CI has had apparent success at completing deals, investors have not been on board with the strategy. CI’s share price has fallen over 40% this year, and many have publicly speculated that CI’s substantial deal volume is at least partially attributable to its willingness to overpay. While the pricing of CI Financial’s acquisitions is generally not disclosed, the volume of deals that CI has strung together during intense competition from buyers and record high multiples suggests it’s not accustomed to being the low bidder.
This year, souring market conditions have thrown cold water on CI’s M&A binge. The firm’s deal pace is slowing, and the focus has shifted to deleveraging and attempting to unlock the value of the U.S. wealth management business built through the planned spinoff. By selling off a portion of the wealth management business via IPO, CI will raise funds that it can use to pay down its debt balance. The spinoff will also present a stand-alone, pure-play wealth management business to the public markets that (CI’s management hopes) will be valued more like a private wealth manager and less like a public asset manager.
After the transaction, the existing debt and guaranteed payment obligations related to CI’s wealth management acquisition spree will be retained by the Canadian asset management business, while the U.S. business will retain the contingent consideration obligations related to prior acquisitions. The Canadian asset management business will then use the proceeds from the spinoff to pay down its debt balance, which stood at C$3.9 billion on September 30, 2022. After the IPO, CI’s management expects that the Canadian business will not fund any future U.S. acquisitions, nor will it pursue large M&A opportunities in Canada. Future inorganic growth of the U.S. business will be funded by cash flow, partnership units, and public company stock.
The focus on deleveraging comes at a time when debt costs have been soaring, putting additional strain on leveraged consolidator models beyond declining revenue and rising costs for component firms. Amidst this environment, early warning signs for CI have started to emerge; in April this year, CI Financial’s issuer credit rating was downgraded by S&P from BBB to BBB- (the lowest investment grade rating). In early November, CI’s credit facility was amended to increase the maximum leverage ratio (funded debt to annualized EBITDA) to 4.5x (previously 4.0x). On September 30, CI’s leverage ratio stood at 4.0x—exactly in line with the covenant prior to amendment.
While CI initially targeted a 20% spinoff of the U.S. wealth management business, CI’s CFO hinted that the amount could now be higher. A larger spinoff would presumably allow for greater deleveraging.
Beyond deleveraging, CI hopes that a pure play U.S. wealth management business will be valued differently from the combined asset and wealth management business. CI’s Enterprise Value / LTM EBITDA multiple peaked at close to 12x late last year, and today CI trades at roughly 7.7x trailing twelve-month EBITDA. Back in February, MacAlpine remarked on CI’s fourth-quarter earnings call that he felt the company was “criminally undervalued” based on where it was trading at the time. “We’re not getting credit for the shift of our business to the U.S. nor the rapid growth of our wealth management business,” MacAlpine added.
The disparity between publicly traded asset manager valuations and privately transacted wealth manager valuations has become more pronounced
While we doubt CI’s valuation is a criminal offense, MacAlpine may be on to something. The disparity between publicly traded asset manager valuations and privately transacted wealth manager valuations has become more pronounced in recent years. EBITDA multiples for most smaller publicly traded asset managers have trended downwards, reflecting adverse trends like pricing pressure and asset outflows that have plagued the asset management industry. On the other hand, wealth management firms have been less exposed to these pressures and have seen multiples trend up (at least through the end of last year) as a proliferation of capital and acquiror models have competed for deals.
We suspect that CI has paid a higher multiple for many of its wealth management acquisitions than it trades at itself. Undoing that reverse multiple arbitrage is something that CI’s management hopes will happen with the spinout, but the current market environment will likely make this an uphill battle. Along with almost everything else, multiples for publicly traded asset/wealth managers have declined this year. According to MacAlpine himself, private market valuations have declined “in lockstep” with public markets. All of this suggests that achieving an attractive valuation for the U.S. wealth management business may prove difficult.