Contact: Brenon Daly
Although private equity (PE) is often portrayed as heartless and hardened dealmakers, it turns out the group is actually quite sensitive. We don’t necessarily mean emotionally sensitive but rather economically sensitive. This hyperactive group of acquirers is far more attuned to interest rates, credit availability and other economic factors than rival corporate buyers. What happens outside buyout firms goes a long way toward shaping what goes on inside.
We’re seeing that right now in the tech M&A market. The just-enacted sweeping overhaul to the US tax code has changed some of the key calculations that buyout shops have to make before they can put their unprecedented pile of cash to work in tech deals. Under the new tax regime, PE firms are facing higher costs and potentially longer holding periods – both of which would weigh on returns. (Buyout shops are getting hit with numerous changes, the most significant of which is that they are now only able to deduct a portion of the interest payments for the debt they use to acquire companies.)
The tax changes, which were negotiated and passed in the final few months of last year, knocked PE almost completely out of the market during that time. Through the first three quarters of 2017, buyout shops were clipping along at an average of about $10bn in spending each month, according to 451 Research’s M&A KnowledgeBase. However, spending plummeted to just $7bn for the entire fourth quarter. The aggregate value of deals in December – the month when the new tax code was approved – didn’t even reach a half-billion dollars, the lowest monthly total since early 2014.
Of course, this is only the most-recent case of macroeconomic conditions shaping PE activity. A far more vivid example of that came a decade ago, when the mortgage crisis effectively killed the first wave of tech buyouts. As we noted last summer on that unhappy anniversary, the last four crisis-shadowed months of 2007 accounted for just $7bn of the then-record $106bn in PE spending that year. The PE industry took until 2015 to reclaim the level of spending it put up in 2007, according to the M&A KnowledgeBase.
No one is suggesting the changes from the tax code will be anywhere as severe as the disappearance of credit, which is what we saw in the recession a decade ago. This time it’s more of a recalibration than a retreat.