Year-to-date RIA M&A activity has surpassed last year’s record levels so far in 2022 even as macro headwinds for the industry continue to mount. Fidelity’s May 2022 Wealth Management M&A Transaction Report listed 93 deals through May of 2022, up from 72 during the same period in 2021. These transactions represented $135 billion in AUM, up 12% from 2021 levels.
The continued strength of RIA M&A activity amidst the current environment dominated by inflation, rising interest rates, and a tight labor market is noteworthy given that all of these factors could put a strain on the supply and demand dynamics that have driven deal activity in recent years. Rising costs and interest rates coupled with a declining fee base will put pressure on highly-leveraged consolidator models, and a potential downturn in performance could put some sellers on the sidelines until fundamentals improve.
Despite these pressures, the market has proven robust (at least so far). Demand for RIAs has remained strong, with the professionalization of the buyer market continuing to be a theme driving M&A activity. Deal volume is increasingly driven by serial acquirers and aggregators with dedicated deal teams and access to capital. Mariner, CAPTRUST, Beacon Pointe, Mercer Advisors, Creative Planning, Wealth Enhancement Group, Focus Financial, and CI Financial all completed multiple deals during the first five months of the year.
This group of companies, along with other strategic acquirers and consolidators, have continued to increase their share of industry deal volume and now account for about half of all deals. In addition to driving overall industry deal volume, the proliferation of strategic acquirers and aggregator models has led to increased competition for deals throughout the industry. This has contributed to multiple expansions and shifts to more favorable deal terms for sellers in recent years. While there are some signs that deal activity from these acquirers may slow down (CI Financial’s CEO Kurt MacAlpine remarked on the company’s first quarter earnings call that their pace of acquisitions has “absolutely slowed down”), we’ve not yet seen that borne out in the reported deal volume.
On the supply side, the motives for sellers often encompass more than purely financial considerations. Sellers are often looking to solve succession issues, improve quality of life, and access organic growth strategies. Such deal rationales are not sensitive to the market environment, and will likely continue to fuel the M&A pipeline even in a downturn. And despite years of record setting M&A activity, the number of RIAs continues to grow—which suggests the uptick in M&A activity is far from played out.
Whatever net impact the current market conditions have on RIA M&A, it may take several months before the impact becomes apparent in reported deal volume given the often multi-month lag between deal negotiation, signing, and closing. But at least through May, transaction activity has remained steady or even surpassed last year.
What Does This Mean for Your RIA?
For RIAs planning to grow through strategic acquisitions: Pricing for RIAs has continued to trend upwards in recent years, leaving you more exposed to underperformance. While the impact of current macro conditions on RIA deal volume and multiples remains to be fully seen, structural developments in the industry and the proliferation of capital availability and acquiror models will likely continue to support higher multiples than the industry has been accustomed to in the past. That said, a long-term investment horizon is the greatest hedge against valuation risks. Short-term volatility aside, RIAs continue to be the ultimate growth and yield strategy for strategic buyers looking to grow their practice or investors capable of long-term holding periods. RIAs will likely continue to benefit from higher profitability and growth compared to broker-dealer counterparts and other diversified financial institutions.
For RIAs considering internal transactions: We’re often engaged to address valuation issues in internal transaction scenarios. Naturally, valuation considerations are front of mind in internal transactions as they are in most transactions. But how the deal is financed is often an important secondary consideration in internal transactions where buyers (usually next-gen management) lack the ability or willingness to purchase a substantial portion of the business outright. As the RIA industry has grown, so too has the number of external capital providers who will finance internal transactions. A seller-financed note has traditionally been one of the primary ways to transition ownership to the next generation of owners (and in some instances may still be the best option), but there are also an increasing number of bank financing and other external capital options that can provide the selling partners with more immediate liquidity and potentially offer the next-gen cheaper financing costs.
If you are an RIA considering selling: After years of steadily increasing multiples and fundamental performance, RIA valuations are now at or near all-time highs. But whatever the market conditions when you go to sell, it is important to have a clear vision of your firm, its value, and what kind of partner you want before you go to market. As the RIA industry has grown, a wide spectrum of buyer profiles has emerged to accommodate different seller motivations and allow for different levels of autonomy post transaction. A strategic buyer will likely be interested in acquiring a controlling position in your firm and integrating a significant portion of the business to create scale. At the other end of the spectrum, a sale to a patient capital provider can allow your firm to retain its independence and continue operating with minimal outside interference. Given the wide range of buyer models out there, picking the right buyer type to align with your goals and motivations is a critical decision, and one which can have a significant impact on personal and career satisfaction after the transaction closes.