Private Equity and the credit crunch

Economic growth, Financial Events, Leverage

I recently had the opportunity to attend a workshop organised by Pilko & Associates with leading figures from the private equity (PE) industry. It was fascinating to hear their views on how the current credit crunch is affecting M&A activity. The days when some PE players were acclaimed as geniuses simply for loading up a company with debt are clearly gone. There is a growing consensus that we are moving into a tougher climate for deals, which will probably affect M&A activity and chemical company valuations quite significantly:

• PE had lost its cost of capital advantage in M&A, with a maximum of 4/5 times leverage now being available, compared to the 8/9 times that had been common.
• Investors have also become more cautious, wanting ‘simple stories’ to support a deal, and preferring to work with known people who have good track records.
• Deal size has dropped to around $3bn – $4bn, with larger deals only being done by strategic buyers (eg major companies) who can fund via their own cash-flow.
• Valuations are therefore reducing, but PE has not yet reduced its expectations for >20% return. Bolt-on acquisitions will therefore become more common.

I also got their inside view of the US subprime crisis, where caution seemed to be the order of the day. The expectation was that this would rollover into Q4, and that even then we might not be ‘out of the woods’.

There were also a number of specific issues which have recently appeared on the radar:

• H1 saw several major deals completed, and these will take time to be digested.
• PE buyers are more wary of above ground liabilities after the Texas City refinery explosion. Issues such as process safety/maintenance spend/training are now key.
• The ‘mood music’ of management presentations is seen as critical, as whilst governance policies/systems can change quickly, cultures change more slowly.
• There is probably less sharing of HSE/EHS experience going on, due to the more fragmented nature of the industry. This is a negative step, and needs addressing.
• The majors are now imposing their own standards very quickly on new acquisitions, and taking the costs up-front as part of the deal’s overall cost.

Of course, the current problems in financial markets may all blow over in the next 6 months. But it was interesting to hear the response given to a question as to whether it would be better to issue debt now, or wait 6 months. ‘Take the pain now, and pay the extra premium’ was the advice. ‘Risk is currently increasing in financial markets, not reducing’.

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