Back to basics for PE

-Contact Thomas Rasmussen, Brenon Daly

Coming off a dealmaking binge fueled by cheap credit, private equity (PE) shops have been investing much more soberly since the debt market collapsed late last summer. Highly leveraged multibillion-dollar buyouts have gone the way of the collateralized derivatives. As financing has become much more expensive, PE shops have in turn become more price sensitive. Deals are much smaller and generally done with equity these days. The heyday of the PE buyout boom saw dollars spent on deals balloon from $56bn in 2005 to $98bn in 2006 before peaking at $118bn in 2007. Last year saw a drastic ‘normalization,’ with disclosed spending by PE firms falling three-quarters to just $26bn. Spending on buyouts has plummeted this year, with just $3bn worth of deals through the first five months of 2009.

Even as the aggregate value of LBOs has declined sharply, we would note that the volume remains steady. (The 90 PE deals announced so far this year is roughly in line with the totals for the same period in three of the past four years.) We might suggest that this indicates a return to basics for PE firms. Instead of bidding against each other in multibillion-dollar takeouts of smoothly running public companies, buyout firms are returning to more traditional targets: unloved, overlooked public companies as well as underperforming divisions of companies.

In terms of recent take-privates, we would point to Thoma Bravo’s pending $114m acquisition of Entrust, which valued the company at less than 1x sales. And looking at divestitures, we would highlight the recent buyout and subsequent sale of Autodesk’s struggling location-services business. Hale Capital Partners acquired the assets in February for a very small down payment and what we understand was a $10m backstop in case things went awry. New York City-based Hale Capital put the acquired property through a pretty serious restructuring. (The moves got the division running at what we understand was an EBITDA run-rate of $5m on approximately $20m in trailing sales.) Hale then sold the assets for $25m in cash and stock in mid-May to Telecommunications Systems following a competitive bidding process. Through the terms of the divestiture, Autodesk also had a small windfall in the sale of its former unit, pocketing an estimated $5m.

PE spending falls of a cliff

Year Average deal size (total known values/total deals)
2005 $218m
2006 $305m
2007 $395m
2008 $106m
2009 $26m

Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase