In the Market for a Good Used RIA?

8 Tips for Being a Buyer in a Seller’s Market

Industry Trends

Rare sighting. New Mercedes-Benz EQS caught in the wild by a friend of mine, who says it’s massive. Time will tell whether this is the shape of things to come, or just the new Ford Taurus.

Last week I got an email from the finance company that holds the lease on my car announcing that the “countdown had begun.” My lease ends in May, and the manufacturer was encouraging me to start thinking about my next vehicle – even offering to waive the $575 lease disposition fee if I terminated the lease early. Strange, I thought. Given the scarcity of new vehicles in the market, why is the manufacturer’s finance company offering me incentives to join the line of people who want but can’t get a new car?

Eager to uncover the motivation for this surprising act of Teutonic generosity, I reviewed my lease agreement to see if I could solve the mystery. Knowing I had the option the buy the car at the lease’s stated residual value, I also checked some used car listings for comps with the age and mileage my roadster will have in May. This exercise suggested my car will be worth about 40% to 50% more than what I could buy it for at the end of the lease. So, my call option is in the money, and the finance company is keen to let me surrender that option to them.

Alas, my good fortune isn’t all that good. If I choose to buy-and-hold my car at the end of the lease, I can’t monetize the option. If, instead, I buy-and-trade my car for something else, I may get market value, but I’ll have to find something to buy. These days that will cost me both in terms of time and money. At this point, the only thing I know for sure is that I won’t be returning my car to the finance company. Sorry fellas.

In the Market for a Good Used RIA?

A couple of times a week, we get calls from someone we’ve never met saying they’d like to talk with us about their RIA acquisition strategy. About half are RIAs or trustcos looking for expansion, and the other half are private equity or family offices. Very few are calling because they have a particular target in mind; fewer still have begun the process of negotiating with a potentially interested seller.

If your acquisition strategy these days is starting from scratch, you’re in a tough spot. There’s nothing on the lot, and what is available looks expensive. That doesn’t mean you should give up, though. Here are some practical tips to pursue an acquisition strategy in this market environment, as well as the markets to follow.

  1. Build relationships. Sellers faced with a dozen potential suitors often exhibit a common behavior: they don’t know what they like – they like what they know. Sellers are drawn to preexisting relationships, even when the offer from those parties doesn’t quite measure up to other offers. This makes a lot of sense given that selling an RIA often means going into business with the buyer for several years. Acquisitions are a process, not an event, so get to know the people you might want to be in business with – early and often. It’ll help you win the auction – or avoid it altogether.
  2. Deliver what you promise. The most frustrating part of the transaction process is when counterparties (or their advisors) don’t meet deadlines. If indications of interest are due on Friday, don’t call on Friday to ask for more time. You might get it, but you’ll also earn a reputation for not meeting expectations, which will make sellers leery of dealing with you. Sellers are usually represented, and buyers often aren’t. If you need professional assistance in pursuing an acquisition, get them on board so that you’ll maximize your opportunity.
  3. Consider alternative structures. Not every seller needs or even wants a check. Some want a partner. Some want your stock. Some want a joint venture. Ask questions about the underlying needs of the seller to find out how you can creatively accommodate their needs and meet yours as well. Winning a deal isn’t always about being the high bid – it’s about being the best bid.
  4. Accept pricing for what it is. For lots of very rational reasons, pricing in the RIA space is high. It might not be quite as high as reported, because everyone in the deal community is motivated to dress up the multiples as much as possible (we’ve written before about reported versus pro forma numbers, pricing with and without earn-outs, the impact of rollover equity, etc.). But, like prices for new and used cars, RIAs are worth top-dollar. Neither situation is going to resolve itself anytime soon. Microchip availability may drive the supply/demand imbalance in automobiles for years. Low interest rates and a flood of PE capital may do the same for RIAs.
  5. Turn your acquisition strategy on its head. If you accept the fact that this is a seller’s market, why do you want to be a buyer? Think about selling – or merging – into a larger firm. As part of a larger buyer, you’ll have more support (talent and capital) for building through acquisitions, and you’ll have the benefit of firsthand experience as a seller.
  6. Don’t get caught up in FOMO. There is a frenzy to buy RIAs, but that doesn’t mean you have to be part of it. Discipline still matters. Some buyers are so desperate to acquire an RIA that they’re willing to look at “opportunities” that don’t make any sense. Remember that opportunity is a two-way street. The bull market of the past twelve years has redeemed a lot of bad acquisitions in the RIA space. These days, everybody on the buyside feels smart.
  7. Don’t wait for the market to become rational. If you’re sitting this “period” out because you’re waiting for valuations to come down, find another reason. Prices may drop – but it may be a long time from now. If paying full freight for acquisitions doesn’t suit you, I won’t judge you. But don’t base your expectations for the future on the hope that things will change. They may not change.
  8. You might do better on your own. For most firms, organic growth is the best growth. Competing for acquisitions is hard, and integrating them is even harder. Conventional wisdom these days is that organic growth opportunities in the RIA space are narrowing and growth is slowing. But conventional wisdom yields conventional results. If you can devise a way to generate organic growth, you’ll gain control over your future – and a standout presence as a target one day.

Shortages and tight markets are more the exception than the rule right now. I’ve heard an emerging theory in fixed income that rates will stay “lower-for-longer.” If so, yield starved investors of all stripes will be drawn to the growth and income characteristics of RIAs – which will keep multiples “higher-for-longer.” Whether or not this turns out to be the case, the shortage of acquisition opportunities in investment management firms will likely outlast the shortage of microchips that’s plaguing car manufacturing, such that even scratch-and-dent RIAs will remain pricey. As a buyer, you can’t entirely sidestep this problem, but you can pursue some basic tactics that will help – both now and in the future.