The Fundamental Value of RIAs? Scarcity.

If the Choice Is Buy vs. Build, "Build" Doesn’t Even Come Close

Current Events Transactions

Too much of a good thing? Never. One of 25 “new” Aston Martin DB4s (Source:

Are RIA transaction multiples getting out of hand? Contrary to the usual laws of supply and demand, each week it seems like we hear about another blockbuster deal rumored to have happened at an astronomical price, and correspondingly, we meet a new capital source we hadn’t known previously who is looking for a way to implement an acquisition strategy in the RIA space. Is this FOMO on a grand scale, or just part of a grander moment in market dynamics?

If you weren’t hiding under a rock last week, you probably read plenty about the Robinhood ($HOOD) IPO. Robinhood is a noteworthy counterpoint to the RIA space because it is practically the anti-RIA. RIAs target high net worth investors who want returns and capital preservation; $HOOD targets young speculators with money to burn. RIAs develop recurring revenue streams from investment management; $HOOD builds transaction volume by hyping “opportunities.”  RIAs follow a fiduciary standard; $HOOD monetizes clients with margin accounts and payment for order flow.  If you wanted to define the typical RIA business model, you would do well to just assume the opposite of Robinhood.

If you wanted to define the typical RIA business model, you would do well to just assume the opposite of Robinhood.

Yet, $HOOD’s initial few days of trading bear out a revenue multiple that is mind-numbing, even compared to the high-watermark transactions in the RIA space. I can’t explain it, and I’m tempted to dismiss it as a sideshow altogether. But, a glance at Robinhood, digital assets, or 10 year treasuries for that matter, suggests that the wall of money that has moved an array of asset valuations higher over the past 15 months has yet to abate.

Valuation practitioners are wired to respect intrinsic value. We can’t help but view assets like Bitcoin and Meme-stockbrokers with a curmudgeonly air. And it’s hard to get excited about bond yields measured in basis points instead of percentage points, regardless of your inflation outlook. RIA valuations, on the other hand, we can defend.

RIAs remain the ultimate growth AND income play.

RIAs remain the ultimate growth AND income play. What other business model produces a coupon in the upper single to low double digits, and then increases the dollar amount of that return with market and organic growth? Even at EBITDA multiples that would have made people blanche a few years ago, the return profile on RIAs is hard to match. Low yielding treasuries don’t come close, even on a risk adjusted basis.

This isn’t to say that investing in RIAs is without risk. Investment management is labor intensive so much that we’ve been told by one very experienced buyer that he feels one can “rent” an interest in an RIA, but never really “own” one. Many RIAs struggle with genuine organic growth, and the most recent Schwab industry study shows AUM growth outstripping revenue growth, suggesting that realized fees are eroding – even in wealth management. Nevertheless, looking back over the past 18 months, it’s hard to find a business that was more adaptable and resilient than investment management – what looked like bottomless downside turned into banner performance.

Our perspective isn’t unique. The problem is that for all the interest in acquiring RIAs, there aren’t that many to be had. While the total count of RIAs is debatable (about 15,000 to 40,000 – depending on who’s counting), what is easier to see is that the portion of substantial RIAs, especially those in the wealth management space (where much of the acquisition interest is these days) is small. There are maybe 500 wealth management firms with AUM in excess of $1.0 billion, and a good portion of those see themselves as acquirers rather than sellers. You can always consolidate smaller firms, of course, but it’s hard to build a $100 billion shop with $300 million add-ons.

Acquisition activity is hot, multiples are strong, and there’s no end in sight.

Bitcoin aficionados can talk about verifiable scarcity all day, but most people aren’t qualified to audit the bitcoin algo that limits the number of coins. We know what it takes to build multi-billion dollar AUM firms – time – a lot more time than it takes for server farms to mine digital coins. The best growth for RIAs is still organic, but life is short, and most grandiose investment strategies in investment management don’t budget the decades it takes to do it from scratch. Ergo, acquisition activity is hot, multiples are strong, and there’s no end in sight.

The Aston Martin DB4 GT pictured above looks very similar to the ones produced in the early 1960s, but it was actually built in 2019. The GT version (more power, less weight) of the DB4 was supposed to total 100 cars, compared to the 1200 or so regular models. The DB4 GT production run ended early, though, as Aston Martin introduced the DB5 (the model ultimately mythologized in James Bond movies) after building only 75. As a consequence, auction prices of the GT version usually had an extra digit compared to those of comparable non-GT series cars.

Five years ago, Aston Martin decided to do a special production run of the final 25 cars. Each car took an estimated 4,500 man-hours to build, and all were presold at £1.5 million. Interestingly, the 33% increase in supply didn’t dent auction prices for original DB4 GTs, and I suspect a similar increase in larger RIAs would just add to buyer enthusiasm.

I wonder if crypto-investors would have a similar experience.