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What is COVID-19 Doing to the M&A Markets Now?

What’s the latest effect (as of late-July) COVID is having on lower middle-market M&A in the US? 

Some deals have fallen out resulting in some new buyer requests emerging. As with stock in the publicly traded markets, we are seeing what you might call a “sector-rotation.” Any time you have a change in the macro-environment, whether favorable or unfavorable to the economy overall, you see buyer preferences shift.

Is activity shrinking?

Demand has moved and it takes time for supply to catch up. Also, it takes upwards of three months to close an M&A deal, even in the smoothest of times. So, replacing those deals that fell out that were in the middle or even their end phases will require some time. But the buyers still keep calling. We aren’t seeing a deeper trend, which would be concerning, about money being pulled out of private equity. So, the ship has taken a roll but there is no sign it's taking on any water.

Why haven’t buyers dried up?

Institutions and wealthy individuals invest in private equity and turn into the lower middle-markets because they need a place to set their money to work for them. 

Globally, governments have slashed interest rates in response to the pandemic. That made every other class of investment less attractive. Coming into 2020, we were concerned that rising interest rates would make those other asset classes more attractive, and we would see the historic record inflows to private equity dry up. But that has now been deferred for another year or so. Once governments recognize the need to pay off these massive bills they’ve just created, probably at the end of the next budget and tax cycle, we will see interest rates rise, perhaps even faster than we had expected as governments raise taxes and attempt to inflate away their debt.

 

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That’s fine for financial buyers but what about strategic buyers? 

Yes, some have headed for the sidelines for the time being. But operating companies, as always, need to grow their revenue and the healthiest businesses will continue to look for growth opportunities. In the present scenario, we also have companies that weren’t as healthy or as growth-oriented that now need to replace some revenues and that need to, in a way, reinvent themselves or find alternate routes to market. We also are seeing trade buyers entering the market because they have lost key suppliers or are worried about losing key suppliers, and they are looking to integrate upstream. Fortunately, larger companies went into this situation with overall corporate debt at record lows. That means there are companies out there that have the room to borrow even if their operations are not going gangbusters at the moment.

But are banks lending? 

Debt is tightening at the moment. Lenders don’t like uncertainty. This is part of the reason that deals that were negotiated pre-COVID are falling out. Buyers use as much debt as possible and if interest rates go up (which they did for M&A debt even though no-risk and low-risk interest rates were brought down), then the math of the deal gets reshuffled and someone backs out. But banks adapt and as the risk-free rate hovers near zero, they find ways to get comfortable with handing out M&A debt. Seeing senior debt on deals now brings them around 6% and mezzanine debt 12-14%, is helping them adapt faster at the moment. We are seeing deals carry a little less debt over the last few months, but bankable deals are still getting debt. Unfortunately, though, lenders are a little more investigative and slower than normal, so we are seeing this add perhaps a month to many deals.

What effect does this have on the price? 

So far buyers are being creative, and those that are not are losing their deals. The good buyers are coming back and tinkering with the deal structure to keep the overall multiple up rather than lose the deal. We are seeing them ask for more seller debt and more rollover. Deals that used to have a 20% rollover component now might have 30 or 40%, leaving the sellers a bigger second bite at the apple while still satisfying their need or desire for a transaction. 

So, is it still a good time to enter the market? 

The best time to enter the market if you are selling ice is the summertime. But the amount of time it takes to get a company to market is longer than the range of our visibility at present into where the market will be when the company is truly at the step of “entering the market”. So that question carries a bit of a false pretext. The real question is: “Is it time to start the process?” 

The answer to that question is: “It’s always time to be ready to sell.” And because of today’s added volatility, to the extent, an owner is trying to time a window they are going to have a better shot at it if they get started, get their marketing materials made, learn the process, and stand ready to enter.

Is it really all about market timing? 

No. You can sell ice in the winter, and you can sell it for the same price as in the summer if you know what you’re doing. You just have to work harder and maybe be a bit more patient, creative, or flexible. You need a solid process, broad market outreach, and a good M&A team around you. I’ve known too many owners that waited for the right wave and by the time they realized it had come, it was past. At least those that were sitting on their board out in the surf could try to chase that wave or ride the back of it, as opposed to those waiting on the beach. You can certainly sit out a solid tough spell but getting the right deal is not about hitting the market at just the right time. Buyers come and buyers go. There is always a quality buyer out there that needs the business and will pay top dollar if handled properly.

Final thoughts on the current situation?

Selling a business is too important of a decision to let any single factor decide for you. The business is usually the owner’s life’s work and therefore the considerations are infinite. Never will all of them fall into a perfect line. In other words, there are always reasons to not sell. Fortunately, starting the process and deciding to sell is not the same thing. Starting the process simply requires the reasons to sell being slightly greater than the reasons not to sell. Then, six months or a year later when the contract is on the table and the pen is in your hand, the relative importance of the pros and cons shifts. Our clients pass up offers all the time. Just because they pass on an offer does not mean that they should not have started or entered the market when they did. As long as they retain absolute discretion to sell or not to sell throughout the process, being worried about where the market is or where it might be going should not be a major concern.

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The 2020 U.S. Election And M&A

Past presidential elections in the United States have coincided with macroeconomic circumstances that affect markets. For example, in 2000, the dot-com bubble burst. In 2008, America was in the midst of the Great Recession. And now in 2020, we are in the middle of a global pandemic, dealing with the impacts of the COVID-19 virus, coupled with sweeping protests regarding racial injustice and the repercussions that forced closures have on businesses. In the wake of all of this, four months remain until the November election. Unfortunately, we cannot predict the future, but we can take a look at how the M&A market has been impacted in the past.

M&A activity is cyclical in nature, subject to underlying circumstances that include changing technology, electoral politics, and regulatory changes. As the current M&A cycle winds down, it is worth noting that the dealmaking wave that ceased during the financial crisis actually got started during a slowdown in 2003. Leading up to the 2008 election, M&A activity in the U.S. was strong and it did not bottom out until later when the worst of the recession had passed. Two major relief packages, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 enacted by the outgoing administration, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, enacted during the first year of the new administration, boosted recovery in capital markets and helped companies adapt to adverse macro conditions in the near term, and eventually paved the way for a new M&A cycle because the cost of capital was reduced to historic lows, injecting liquidity into equity and bond markets.

The level of dealmaking activity in the multiquarter period leading up to the 2012 election compares favorably to the financial crisis period that coincided with the 2008 election at $802.6 billion in 6,087 deals, topping activity for the same period the year before. In the first three quarters of 2012, M&A activity saw a combined $837.5 billion in 6,864 completed deals. The JOBS Act was enacted in 2012, designed to encourage small businesses to become public companies. As a result, the SEC made the filing process easier to manage.

 

Ready to explore your exit and growth options?

 

M&A activity peaked in Q4 ahead of a decline in 2013 Q2 that bottomed out at $241.3 billion in 2,049 transactions. In mid-2013, M&A activity accelerated and the cycle expanded, partially stimulated by strategic buyers contending with financial sponsors armed with record levels of dry powder. Private equity has kept that cycle going from 2013 to 2019. Volume met or exceeded 900 completed transactions and at least $70 billion in value over the same timespan.

Certain conditions that were a result of the financial crisis spurred expansion of the M&A cycle and have proven favorable for private equity and venture capital dealmaking, such as enterprise restructuring around developing regions, expansion of business portfolios, and optimization for tax benefits and accessing cash outside the U.S.  

During 2014, completed transactions grew 26% year-over-year, while deal value increased by an additional $500 billion. This cycle of completed transactions peaked in 2015 at 12,523 deals of $1.9 trillion in value. Annual volume remained above 11,000 transactions with deal value at around $2 trillion for each of the past five years.

Leading up to the 2016 election, M&A activity was pushed to its highest levels per quarter in a decade. In the first three quarters of 2016, 8,825 transactions worth a combined $1.6 trillion closed. Activity dropped in Q4, but rebounded in 2017. Since 2018 began, M&A has steadily declined and Q4 2019 posted the lowest total since Q2 2013. 2019 saw levels return to those last seen in 2013. On June 8, 2020, the National Bureau of Economic Research announced that the U.S. entered into a recession in February of 2020.

While the global pandemic has undoubtedly been costly and detrimental to many businesses, it has also opened up opportunities for growth for some companies as consumer behaviors adapt to a changed world. Global supply chains were massively disrupted, hampering global trade, all of which has a negative impact on dealmaking. How it will play out in the later half of 2020 and into 2021 will depend partly on if there is a second wave of the virus and the availability of a vaccine. Technology remains a continuously evolving area of opportunity and the pandemic has changed the ways that we work and collaborate. Environment, social and corporate governance practices will continue to designate the convergence of technology and regulation. How the election will impact M&A markets remains unknown, but history has shown that emerging out of a recession tends to spawn accelerated M&A activity well into the future. Every M&A cycle develops in response to different conditions, yet all have emerged during periods of economic recovery combined with improvements in capital markets after consecutive quarters of underperformance.

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How COVID-19 Has Impacted Buyer Appetites In The Lower To Middle Market in South Africa

Benchmark International’s industry agnostic approach has proven to be informative during the Covid-19 epidemic. Interest in most of our client base has not declined and we are receiving queries from a wide range of parties.

Who are these interested parties and what is their investment approach? Analysing the data provides an interesting insight and some understanding of the shifting approach amongst these different categories of buyers.

• Listed Companies with their robust balance sheets are compelled to continue investing to meet forecast performance targets and stakeholder objectives. Generally, their acquisition mandates are governed by their investment committees where risk is a dominant factor. Turnaround and distressed assets are typically less attractive unless fulfilling a defined strategic need.

• Foreign Corporates from the Western to Eastern hemisphere still see South Africa as a stable foundation to expand through to Sub-Saharan Africa. South Africa’s well-developed IT and broadband infrastructure, advanced legal and banking sectors, safe aviation record, and access to a cost effective English-based labour pool facilitates business across the African continent. Themes of specific interest have emerged with a higher than normal volume of inbound enquiries for renewable energy, TMT, IT infrastructure and service as well as software businesses in particular.

• Private Equity in South Africa has grown and matured immensely over the last decade and remains one of the top acquirers/investee categories in the middle market for Benchmark international. Attached to the funds they raise are set acquisition criteria, investment limits and defined investment timelines where cash reserves must be spent. Similar to the listed segment, risk profiles are a key investment mandate consideration. During lockdown, Benchmark International has experienced a slight shift in the number of deals concluded towards those that have private equity components to them.

• Family Offices have shown resilience through the epidemic and continue to show interest in our opportunities. Their mandates are more flexible but are primarily based on where their strategic and financial input will maximise returns.

• Covid-19 has forced Large Private Companies to look at vertical integration of their supply chains. They also continue to seek to grow their market share through horizontal acquisitions and acquisitions of niche market opportunities.

• High Net Worth Individuals remain interested in growing their asset bases. They generally focus on opportunities in which they have existing investments and expertise and are able to achieve economies of scale.

 

Author
Anthony Monne
Transaction Senior Associate
Benchmark International

T: +27 (0) 21 300 2055
E: monne
@benchmarkintl.com

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As If Pronouncing EBITDA Wasn't Hard Enough, We Now Have EBITDAC

The novel Coronavirus's impact has been felt in companies large and small across the globe as business has been curtailed and economies have slowed.

In mid-April, Benchmark International published a blog article outlining some of the recommendations made to clients to record the pandemic's financial impact in order to readily identify any expenses or losses that arose as a consequence of this one-off event.

Whilst suggesting it would be naive to advocate that these non-recurring expenses, or losses, directly attributed to the effects of the COVID pandemic could simply be written out, it was evident that negotiations were bound to include provisions for such abnormalities.  The natural consequence of isolating these abnormalities would be that value could be preserved. However, one could expect deal structures to include deferred compensation - or earn out provisions - that will be triggered when the business demonstrates a return to prior performance and a resilience to the COVID impacts.

 

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Just a few short weeks later, a new acronym has emerged (as the financial sector always loves a good acronym) EBITDAC - the normalised Earnings calculated Before Interest, Tax, Depreciation, Amortisation, and Coronavirus.

At this early stage, this metric has only been adopted by a small number of European corporate companies to present a basis for the amount of debt they should be allowed to raise. Led initially by German manufacturer Schenk Process (owned by the US private equity firm Blackstone) and Chicago based building supplies firm Azek Corporation, the development certainly bodes well for M&A where corporate companies and private equity firms alike have formally recognised such adjustments and are thus likely to be open to negotiating value, subject to appropriate structuring of transactions.

Whilst not known for lightheartedness, it's an area where the industry has been able to poke a little fun at itself. Sabrina Fox, executive adviser at the European Leveraged Finance Association, commented on an item in the Financial Times, "It's a bit ironic to say we're adding back the effects of Coronavirus to deal with the effect of Coronavirus"!

Regardless of the diverse commentary surrounding this new metric, the reality exists. This one-off event has left a few companies untouched with certain sectors receiving significant boosts, and others impacted negatively. The factors attributable to the pandemic cannot be discarded or ignored, and diligent negotiation on issues related to it will be integral to any deal.

 

Author
Andre Bresler
Managing Partner
Benchmark International

T: +27 (0) 21 300 2055
E: Bresler@benchmarkintl.com

 

 

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Benchmark International Provides Equipment to Keep In-Patients and Residents in Touch with Loved Ones

It is now well-documented that care homes have been closed to visitors since early March, leaving already vulnerable residents feeling isolated and cut off from family and friends. Hospices and hospitals have also been forced to put severe visiting restrictions in place to protect people in their care.

In many instances, it has been the carers, themselves, going above and beyond by letting those in their care use their own personal devices to reach a family member, and to keep in touch with loved ones by video, particularly where the residents do not otherwise have access to technology.

In the most tragic cases, the devices are used by patients saying goodbye to their loved ones for the last time.

Like many businesses, Benchmark International has been keen to find ways of supporting those on the frontline. As a technology-driven business, we are fortunate to have facilities that enable seamless communication around the world, and we recognised an opportunity to make the same facilities available to the most vulnerable in our community, with the hope of bringing them some comfort during difficult times.

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How Will The COVID-19 Effect On My Financials Impact My Deal Value?

The impact of the various lock-downs necessitated by the pandemic has directly affected the financial performance of the vast majority of businesses across the globe, both small and large.

Whilst certain M&A deals have continued on their charted timelines, others have seen an acceleration whilst some re-negotiation, and even stoppages, as a consequence of the impact in both buyer and seller positions. Funded deals feeling the most impact as they have in some instances experienced delays as bankers and financiers attend to more pressing matters in the moment.

The question foremost in most seller’s minds is that of value and how, in cases of a drop in performance, this might impact the value of their transactions.

In the same way that a company producing hand sanitiser cannot expect to achieve a valuation based on a short-term explosion of results, companies impacted negatively will not be unduly penalised if the effects are short term.

Normalisations are a fundamental element of negotiation in any M&A transaction where the objective is to determine maintainable earnings by ringfencing non-recurring income and expenses that might otherwise not reflect in the income statement under new ownership.

It would be naïve to suggest that these non-recurring expenses or even losses directly attributable to the effects of the COVID pandemic can simply be written out, but negotiations are bound to include provisions for such abnormalities. One can expect deal structures to include deferred compensation - or earn out provisions - that will be triggered when the business demonstrates a return to prior performance and a resilience to the COVID impacts.

At Benchmark International, we have gone as far as to suggest to some clients they create a COVID-19 income statement line item in which to capture the additional expenses/ losses that will arise due to this once-off event, a list of examples is below;

  • Lost Productivity
  • New IT infrastructure
  • Bad debts
  • Increased provisions imposed by auditors
  • Underprovided items now expensed (i.e. leave)
  • Divisional shutdowns
  • Impairments
  • Bridge financing
  • Retrenchments
  • Fixed costs (like rent which is possibly redundant for a period) to be made to be variable
  • Additional safety and hygiene costs
  • Forex losses or gains

With proper records of these types of expenses, it is possible to defend the adding back of expenses to earnings for the purpose of acquirer valuation in the future.

 

Author
Anthony Monne
Transaction Senior Associate
Benchmark International

T: +27 (0) 21 300 2055
E: monne
@benchmarkintl.com

 

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Benchmark International Donates 400 Pizzas to Local Tampa Hospital to Feed Frontline Heroes

There is great need all around us. During COVID-19 and this time of social distancing, many local businesses are considering ways of how to give back and do their part to support their local communities and businesses.

Benchmark International founders Steven Keane and Gregory Jackson showed their support to the community by purchasing 400 pizza pies over a two-day span from their favorite pizza place - Grimaldi’s Pizzeria in Tampa, FL to be able to feed the healthcare professionals at Tampa General Hospital (TGH).

Steven Keane and Greg Jackson hand-delivered the pizzas this past Tuesday and Wednesday to provide food to the frontline healthcare workers who are selflessly working each day to provide help and comfort to thousands of in-need patients.

As a team, Benchmark International and Grimaldi’s Pizzeria was able to set a few new Grimaldis records.

The records consisted of the following:
• The most pizzas to be in the oven at any one time
• The largest single order – 200 pizzas in one order
• The largest single order two days in a row – Totaling 400 pizzas

Benchmark International was honored to be able to provide this contribution to their local community and also the healthcare workers at Tampa General Hospital (TGH) and would like to thank Jeff, Rick and the Grimaldi’s team who work so hard to help make this happen.

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About “CARES Act” Loans For Small Businesses And M&a Transactions

The United States federal government has released the application for the $349 billion in forgivable loans that small U.S. businesses (under 500 employees) may obtain under the recent CARES Act. These federally guaranteed loans are designed to help businesses continue to pay employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are two types of loans available: Paycheck Protection Loans (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL). While you can apply for both loans, you cannot use funds from each loan for the same expenses. The PPP loans give 2.5 times your monthly payroll expenses, up to $10 million. The EIDL loans provide up to $2 million for working capital needs such as payroll and fixed debt. Because there is a cap on this round of funding, you should not wait to apply if you need one of these loans.

What Sellers Need to Know

If the loans are used for qualified payroll costs, rent, utilities, and interest on mortgage and other debt obligations, they should be forgiven. They have a maturity of two years, and the interest rate is 0.5%. Terms are the same for all borrowers.

There is no reason why taking one of these loans should impact the value of your exit. We encourage you to immediately look into whether this loan makes sense for your business, with one caveat: if you are currently under letter-of-intent or nearing that stage, you should consult with your potential acquirer prior to applying for the loan.

Every business is different and a loan may not be right for your company based on other issues, but please do not needlessly delay or assume that, because you are selling, you should not apply. In fact, when it comes to selling your business, acquirers may actually look favorably upon the securing of a CARES Act loan. Here’s why.

  • If the loan enables you to keep a higher employee headcount, it is an asset because when life begins to return to normal, good labor may be in short supply.
  • If it helps you to avoid drawing on other debt, it can protect your balance sheet from impact and keep your interest payments down.
  • It will aid in clearly establishing and defending the quarantine-related add-backs to your adjusted EBITDA when the time comes.
  • It should help to paint a better picture of the quality of the management team, demonstrating that you took rapid action to preserve the health of the business and the welfare of the employees.
  • It is likely to foster employee loyalty, the absence of which is always a concern for buyers.
  • You will be in a better position to take advantage of business opportunities when quarantines end and help you get your growth curve back to where it should have been.

What You Will Need

The loan application is brief and your current lender should be able to assist you in completing the form. If your lender is not qualified to participate in this program, please contact our experts at Benchmark International and we will share the names of qualified lenders that regularly provide SBA loans to our clients’ acquirers.

You will need some financial and tax data. In the event you do not have access to that data, it may have already been shared with your Benchmark International deal team. Feel free to enlist us in using our virtual tools to help you gather and share (with your lender only) any relevant data we have. Even if we don’t have the data, our virtual tools could be of assistance in the timely filing of your application. For example, we can make documents available in virtual data rooms and arrange teleconferences with your partners and/or lenders if needed.

What Will the Buyer Think and How Will This Be Handled at Closing?

There are no personal guarantees required for these forgivable loans, so in a stock deal, there will be no effect. As a seller, you may request a covenant from the buyer stating that they will comply with all actions necessary to have the loan forgiven. There is presently no recourse back to the seller due to the lack of a personal guarantee.

In an asset deal, all employees are terminated, so you as a seller should still be able to get forgiveness for all compensation, rent, etc., paid up until the closing. If you had borrowed more money, you would have to repay it plus the ratable portion of the 0.5% on that overage. Either way, if a deal is fairly far along, you should discuss results with your lender when applying.

For most sellers, the requirements to get the loan forgiven will be met prior to close. You should document where the loan funds are directed so that you can make the buyer comfortable in diligence that you met the criteria in the statute, especially for stock deals, as this will be something acquirers will likely be looking at for years to come. 

As long as you as the seller assume any risk in the purchase agreement for any pre-closing mistakes, the buyer should not view a CARES small business loan as a detriment. One exception may be in stock deals in which the buyer was planning on taking loans after buying the business. If you have taken the loan and saved the buyer all that payroll expense, the buyer may wish they could have saved that payroll expense post-close instead. However, this is for a window of only a couple of months when both seller and buyer would have been eligible.

Keep in mind, the alternative to a CARES loan is to draw on your line of credit and that must be repaid in full at closing.Unless falling under certain specific NAICS codes, only companies with less than 500 employees qualify for a CARES loan. The definition of “company” includes affiliates, so if a buyer together with its affiliates has more than 500 employees after making the acquisition, then there is a complication. The loans up to the closing date can be forgiven and those that were going to be used afterwards must be repaid at the 0.5% interest rate. This could be like many government set-asides where once a contract is awarded the company no longer must qualify as an 8(a) business. Even with the less attractive option, the downside is minimal.

On the plus side, if the buyer has more than 500 employees, they could not have gotten the loan so they will not be upset that the loan was “used up” by the seller. They may even get to “inherit” the benefit as discussed above. 

The loan only covers up to eight weeks of payroll plus 25% of that amount, and it only looks at payroll up to $100,000 annualized for each employee. So the most a company can get for any one employee is $19,230.77.

If employee headcount is cut OR payroll is reduced before forgiveness is sought, a portion of the loan will not be forgiven. February 15th is the start date for assessing headcount and payroll and this can be restored by June 30th in order to get full forgiveness. So, in an asset deal, this could be an issue, but remember the interest rate is 0.5%. So if you take a loan this week and close sale as an asset deal within eight weeks, all you need to do in the worst possible case is pay back the principal and 0.077% interest.

Similarly, if you take the loan and then shut the business down, terminating everyone within eight weeks, all you must do is pay back the same amount as above, the principal and the 7.7 bips. This is a worst-case scenario. 

On the upside, if you do not close in the eight weeks following taking the loan and don’t otherwise cut headcount or payroll over that time, at the end of those 8 weeks, you simply send a request for forgiveness to the lender along with proof that headcount and payroll were maintained for that eight weeks.

The application is brief and key information can be found using the following links:

Program Overview 

https://www.sba.gov/funding-programs/loans/paycheck-protection-program-ppp

Application 

https://home.treasury.gov/system/files/136/Paycheck-Protection-Program-Application-3-30-2020-v3.pdf

Additional Details for Borrowers 

https://home.treasury.gov/system/files/136/PPP%20Borrower%20Information%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf

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One Certainty about this Virus – Your Taxes Will Go Up

There remain innumerable uncertainties about the spreading pandemic. However, one thing became clear over the last five days – governments are opening their coffers to stem the economic dislocations caused by the many forms of “social distancing.” With air travel curtailed, stores closing, and events cancelled, central banks and executive branches are swinging into action by lowering interest rates, creating tax moratoriums, and spending whatever it takes. When we come out on the other side of this, whether that be in several weeks or months, government coffers will be empty and longer-term healing governments will feel obliged to fund and that will continue to stress public budgets.

The only answer to that stress will be higher taxes. Fortunately, unlike the measures we are seeing now, tax increases will require legislative action and legislatures don’t move all that fast. As a result, there will be a window when business is back to normal and taxes will remain at their current historically low levels around the globe. Will this be for weeks? Months? Certainly less than a year.

So for business owners looking to sell, there may very well be a slight window of opportunity. If things deteriorate further in the near term, buyers will begin shutting down their processes and will be sitting on idle cash when we emerge. They may well be nicely poised to run through a record number of deals between the medical recovery and the tax hikes.

 

Ready to explore your exit and growth options?

There are pieces of the company sale process that are best handled with some air travel and face-to-face meetings, but the initial stages are not those. If you were already thinking about starting the process before this all began, you may want to consider starting now and being ready for this window of opportunity. It often takes a year to sell a business, and the first three to six months of that process can easily be performed remotely.

In fact, at Benchmark International, we’ve been handling the “deal preparation” phase of or engaged remotely for years. Between online data rooms, email, video conferencing, and other collaborative tools including Benchmark International’s newly-launched SISU deal suite software, we have been and remain ready to take our sell-side clients from engagement to signing letters of intent without any need for clients, buyers, or our employees to meet face-to-face.

 

Author
Clinton Johnston
Managing Partner
Benchmark International

T: +1 813 898 2350
E: Johnston@benchmarkintl.com

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Force Majeure is Coming and if You’re Selling Your Business That is Bad

Force ma·jeure /ˌfôrs mäˈZHər/ (1) "superior force", (2) unforeseeable circumstances that prevent someone from fulfilling a contract.

Airlines are suspending flights and changing rules for refunding tickets. Cruise ships companies are in tailspins. Cargo ports are operating with reduced staff and reduced hours. Entire cities are being quarantined. The Coronavirus may or may not become a major global health issue. But the probability that the disease will have an impact on global business is far higher, if not approaching a certainty. This is safe to say not because there is a high probability that the virus will impact your company’s travel or suppliers or daily operations but rather because of the dreaded force majeure provision lurking in so many of your company’s contracts. These clauses are known as the “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to large-scale black-swan type macroeconomic downturns as parties typically rush to invoke them well in advance of any actual calamity striking. One of the unfortunate lessons from 9-11 was that lawyers are not shy about advising their clients to invoke the clause to escape performance obligations on unfavorable contracts. Of course, any contract that is unfavorable to them (whoever “them” is) is probably favorable to your business.

As a reminder, here is an example of a simple force majeure clause:

For this Agreement, an “Event of Force Majeure” means any circumstance not within the reasonable control of the Party affected, but only if and to the extent that (i) such circumstance, despite the exercise of reasonable diligence and the observance of Good Industry Practice, cannot be, or be caused to be, prevented, avoided or removed by such Party, and (ii) such circumstance materially and adversely affects the ability of the Party to perform its obligations under this Agreement, and such Party has taken all reasonable precautions, due care, and reasonable alternative measures to avoid the effect of such event on the Party’s ability to perform its obligations under this Agreement and to mitigate the consequences thereof.

The definitions commonly provide examples of the types of circumstances that qualify earthquakes, war, acts of God, change in laws, civil disorder, and even labor strikes. One aspect of the clause that allows it to be used well in advance of any actual natural event such as the arrival of an epidemic is that the definition commonly includes political acts as well as natural acts. As a result, the declaration of an area as one warranting extreme caution might qualify a government order to reduce the number of flights to an area or the number of visas it grants to people going or coming from an affected area (or quarantining travelers) might qualify.

Furthermore, it seems everyone has a global supply chain. So, any of these events happening “over there” might seem remote from your business. However, for anyone with a contract that wants to avoid the Butterfly Effect can be a siren song.

* * *

At this point, you are probably asking, “But surely people don’t write this term into their contract in a way that allows them to be abused, right?” Well, this clause is kind of an atom bomb. As one does when dealing with atom bombs, contracts are designed to prevent their use and mitigate their effects. The overarching check on the amazing power of the force majeure provision is that it only relieves the party’s performance while the circumstances remain in effect. It’s temporary. Parties won’t abuse it because it just gives them a short-term benefit and then they have to face the music.

So, in the ordinary course of your business, you have to deal with the fact that force majeure clauses may face lean times even when your local environment is perfectly normal. Parts may not be provided on time. Your call center might go dark. Your IT support may not be available. And anyone of your suppliers or customers may have the same problem. As an example, a company that collects fees for collecting, cleaning, and reissuing linens to other local businesses and uses an in-house local manufacturing facility in area with no odd circumstances occurring. Let’s say Miami at present (if there is such a company) may suddenly be hit with the clause because they service cruise ships and hotels or because their raw materials come from Egypt or parts of their detergent is manufactured in Germany from elements mined in the Philippines.

Businesses can survive a three-month or six-month calamity such as this in the ordinary course of their lifespan, so people don’t usually think twice about the wording of a force majeure clause. But your business is going up for sale. And when you go up for sale, everyone looks at your last 12 months' financial performance. The ­last thing you want is a hole that has to be explained. Even if your broker can come up with addbacks to create pro forma financials to show what “would have” happened absent the event of force majeure and how rosy that alternative reality would have been, it is better to not have to do this. More importantly, it points out weaknesses in your business. Buyer favorites include you are beholden to a single source of supply, you have too much customer concentration, your business lacks redundancies, your perfect line of decades of growth and healthy margins now appears more vulnerable than it did before. Whether they believe it or not buyers latch on to these things to justify their valuations and their lenders latch on to them to constrain the debt available to get the deal done (and thus impact purchase price).

We still find buyers asking to see clients’ financials from 2007-2010. Looking back more than five years is (or should I say “was”) unprecedented in M&A, much less looking back over a decade. But it is common at this point and we see little signs that that is ending. But that was the last force majeure type event most of our clients suffered and buyers want to see how the businesses weathered it…And they aren’t asking in hopes of finding some reason to raise the value of their offers.

All the better to have the next event of force majeure occur after your sale rather than before.

Author
Clinton Johnston
Managing Partner
Benchmark International

T: +1 813 898 2350
E: Johnston@benchmarkintl.com

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Effects Of Coronavirus On Business Owners And The Economy

As the coronavirus known as COVID-19 spreads to more regions around the world, it is making a major impact on world and local economies. The virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, has already disrupted global travel and supply chains and affected businesses of all sizes in both China and abroad.

The true impacts of the virus for companies will depend upon how far and wide the outbreak spreads and its duration. If the spread is limited and relatively short-lived, the damage to many businesses could be somewhat minor and recoverable. The types of businesses that analysts warn will feel the worst impacts are hospitality chains, airlines, transportation groups, retailers and makers of luxury goods, as people postpone travel plans and avoid shopping centers. Hospitality businesses such as restaurants and hotels will also face the largest challenge at making up losses later in the year.

Supply Chain Impacts
How long factories in China remain closed is also another important aspect of the situation because of how it is affecting global supply chains, as a great deal of the world’s products are made in Chinese factories. Some industries could begin to run out of parts and miss their revenue targets, such as auto manufacturers and smartphone makers. Smaller businesses that import products from China, such as Amazon third-party sellers, could also face a shortage if factories do not begin to reopen.

Business owners should be proactively assessing their supply chains and mapping out strategies to maintain resources and address vulnerabilities. Do you have a backup plan? Is it possible to source materials locally? Getting ahead of the problem can be worthwhile if it is feasible. Once the virus is no longer an issue, factories are expected to recover and offset lost production. What that ultimately means for business owners depends on their type of business and how much of their inventory has been impacted. Companies that plan for strategic, operational and financial agility in response to future global risks will be more likely to react and recover.

On a somewhat positive note, the number of new cases of COVID-19 in China now appears to be declining, signaling hope that circumstances may be able to improve. Chinese scientists believe that the outbreak will be under control by the end of April.

 

Ready to explore your exit and growth options?

In the United States
The virus has stoked fears on Wall Street has caused markets to fall at near-record levels. Outlooks for revenue growth in 2020 are down. According to a survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in the country of China, nearly half of U.S. businesses based there are expected to lose revenues if the effects of the coronavirus outbreak persist after April 30th. The U.S. House and Senate are working on funding to respond to the virus. Part of this funding may include interest-free loans to small businesses hurt by an outbreak.

There is no expert consensus as to whether COVID-19 could cause the U.S. economy to fall into a recession. Any optimism is partially due to the strength of the economy, the role of the Federal Reserve Board to provide support, and the ability to contain the virus. Meanwhile, the virus’s trajectory remains unpredictable. The Centers for Disease Control issued containment guidance to businesses. And the major stock market indexes continue to react and enter correction territory as investors try to sort out what it could all mean for business owners in the long run.

Around the World
As for the rest of the world, the impacts remain contingent upon how much the virus spreads and how effectively it can be contained. It has reached more than 40 nations so far. Currently in Europe and Asia, many companies are asking employees to work from home or take leave and are assessing their emergency plans to prevent or limit an outbreak. Hospitality companies face the biggest obstacle in this sense because the vast majority of their employees cannot do their jobs from home. In Italy, entire towns are on lockdown and tens of thousands of people are quarantined. In Japan, all schools nationwide are being asked to close for one month to help contain the spread of the virus. In South Korea, confirmed cases are rising. In Iran, cases have also risen and many schools, public offices and businesses have closed. And Saudi Arabia is closing holy Islamic sites to foreigners.

M&A Deals
The impacts on M&A activity remain unclear. If the virus causes a decline in profits for businesses, it could affect M&A. Buyers may lower offers in reaction to market changes, while sellers are likely to expect their original prices. This disparity could reduce transaction volume. For now, it remains a matter of wait and see.

Contact Us
If you are ready to make a move with your company, please reach out to our M&A experts at Benchmark International to discuss how we can help you achieve your goals.

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