We have been in an unprecedented bull market. I use the phrase here broadly as the public markets have been flying for over a decade, and the M&A market has seen similar levels of growth. Spurred on by aggressive monetary and fiscal policies and a relaxed regulatory environment, the S&P 500 has grown 15.47% as of the time of this writing from the bottom on March 9, 2009. Similarly, the DJIA (The Dow 30) has grown at an annual clip of 13.64% over the course of this thirteen-year bull market. Remember what the rule of 72 demonstrates- that money doubles every 6 years at 12% and in less than five years at 15%. This is a remarkable rate of growth when you consider this market has spanned nearly 1/7th of a century.
But bull markets must end. Markets do work in cycles. Much like our natural habitats require destructive fires to seed future growth and a healthy ecosystem, so too does the market. I’m not referencing the concrete jungles we find ourselves in today, but rather our natural environments. Bear markets reintroduce a rational approach to investing that had long been sidelined in favor of momentum and emotion-based investment “theses."
Further, bear markets tend to focus investments toward the highest quality of companies, known as a flight to quality. This clearing of the playing field, separating the wheat from the chaff, will often spur innovation and future growth. So a bear market is as natural to the market dynamic as is a bull market. These countervailing forces are required for regeneration.
The bull market created trillions of dollars of dry powder for buyers to deploy in the coming years. The balance sheets of corporations, large and small, are replete with cash there to deploy in pursuit of their stated strategic goals. The best of markets tends to flood the M&A market with excess buyers, many of which lack the track record, experience, credibility, and true access to funding required to transact successfully. Bear markets tend to weed away many of these less credible buyers creating a similar flight to quality detailed in the above discussion about the public markets. And while the cost of debt will tick up and valuations may similarly tick down, the likelihood of actually consummating a transaction increase as there is a much better chance that the buyer selected can get a deal done.
I tend to view my decisions in life through a very specific lens- my expected value lens. If one were to look at an M&A transaction through that lens, we would likely find the expected value of the proceeds from a transaction as being higher, even if valuations tick down, because the likelihood of closing is greatly increased. And frankly, while the cost of capital on senior debt will rise over the course of the year, given the aforementioned stores of cash in their coffers, buyers will have the ability to utilize more equity to bridge any gaps in the capital stack. Private Equity funds have more than $2 Trillion of dry power. They also have a mandate to put capital to work regardless of the cost of debt lest they face aggressive headwinds during their next fund raise. Their Limited Partners, known as LPs, require that they put the money to work. Deals will continue to happen and we may in fact see more deals in the next eighteen months or more as buyers finally draw down on the excess stores of cash build-up that resulted from inflated valuations and bidding wars with less credible buyers.
Sellers must consider several factors when considering a sale. Of course, valuation and a healthy economic environment are among those factors but they don't have to be the determining one. We are often faced with life changes of which we have no control. Some of us simply reach a stage where we no longer wish to carry the burden that invariably comes with owning and running a business. Or, God forbid, we encounter health challenges personally or in our family that requires that we focus our attention elsewhere. Perhaps we come to the realization that we are no longer the right caretaker for the business? That the business has reached a level where our skills no longer map to what is required to successfully steer. Whatever the reason to sell your company, we can only control the controllables.
Just like in the public markets, if we try to time it perfectly, we will invariably fail because the objective was unattainable. Selling one's business is a life-altering decision. Selling a business can be both liberating and gutting. Sellers are at once monetizing their life's work and entrusting someone else with its care. The stakes are high. When making that determination, it is critical that sellers consider all of the critical variables. While valuation, market conditions and timing are among the variables worthy of consideration, they are merely inputs to a multivariate equation. Often, upon careful consideration, sellers determine that the qualitative elements are more important than are the quantitative ones.
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