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Private equity hopes Petsmart marks turn
From the Financial Times of Tue, 23 Dec 2014 13:03:16 GMT
Jasmine Dugas blow dries a dog after it was bathed at a PetSmart PetsHotel and Doggie Day Camp in Los Angeles, California, May 14, 2012. Not only are top U.S. retailers trying out new ways to make their stores more inviting, some are even expanding, betting there is still a lot of life left in good ol' bricks and mortar. PetSmart Inc, for instance, will offer overnight dog accommodations at more stores to lure customers as it expands. Photo taken May 14, 2012. REUTERS/David McNew (UNITED STATES - Tags: ANIMALS SOCIETY BUSINESS) - RTR32F3F©Reuters

BC Partners’ $8.7bn buyout of Petsmart last week was not just this year’s largest private equity transaction. Private equity executives say it could also signal the beginning of a period of heightened activity for buyout firms that have been sitting on the sidelines as deals swirled around them.

Most of this year’s acquisitions have been driven by public companies whose high share prices allowed them to outbid private equity buyers, and boost their overall profit margins through cost cutting. In the past, such waves of dealmaking by “strategic” corporate buyers were quickly followed by waves of mergers and acquisitions involving financial investors. This time, by contrast, there has been a long delay.

Buyout groups spent just $180bn on US and European deals between January 1 and September 30 this year, according to Dealogic – a figure that has been in effect flat since 2009. At the peak of the mergers and acquisitions market in 2006, they had accounted for $590bn-worth of deals, and then another $570bn in 2007.

One reason for the depressed level of buyouts this year has been the rapid appreciation of share prices, which makes it hard for buyout firms and their targets to agree on valuations. “They couldn’t make the numbers work,” says Mark Bradley, a former Morgan Stanley banker who founded boutique adviser DBO Partners in San Francisco. “As the private equity firms were working on deals, they kept getting more expensive.”

Now, however, the head of capital markets at one New York private equity house claims: “Conditions for the long delayed uptick in [leveraged buyouts] are finally in place.” His belief in a recovery in deals is based on a US equity market that appears “less crazy”.

“Now, the market increase is in line with earnings while, last year, the market raced ahead of earnings,” the person explains. “A stock market that is no longer so hot, and companies that are good candidates for buyouts like Petsmart, are a perfect combination.”

Petsmart had operating issues that attracted unwanted attention from activist hedge funds, making its board more receptive to a sale. But it also had strong cash flows, making it an appealing target for the private equity firms that seek to pile debt on the companies they buy.

Indeed, the dynamics of the Petsmart buyout are reminiscent of the deals private equity was doing at the height of the boom, taking public companies private. In the peak year of 2006, Dealogic recorded $311bn of such deals, accounting for 13 per cent of all M&A. By contrast, between January and September this year, the value of such “take-privates” was less than $20bn – or 1 per cent of all dealmaking.

Buyout firms were far more active this year in selling companies, as they sought to take advantage of ebullient US equity prices. This allowed the private equity industry to return a record $516bn to investors on an annualised basis this year, according to Hamilton Lane research, while only asking investors for $306bn of new money for deals.

Part of the problem private equity faces in putting investors’ money to work is that the competitive landscape has become more intense, even as investment opportunities have become harder to find. Pension funds such as Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board and sovereign wealth funds have gone from being passive investors to private equity rivals.

If the $9bn Petsmart deal is a turning point, it is still small compared with the industry norm of just a few years ago – and larger buyouts are now being constrained by how much debt regulators will tolerate. Limits on the use of debt in any private equity buyout may explain why neither JPMorgan nor Bank of America took part in the financing for any of the Petsmart bidders, leaving Citigroup as the only heavily regulated US bank participating, along with Jefferies, which does not take deposits, and foreign banks Nomura, Deutsche Bank and Barclays.

Many private equity groups also learnt in the last boom that overpaying for companies is a critical error. This year, they have seen Energy Future Holdings – the biggest-leveraged buyout in history – file for bankruptcy protection, and watched as companies that were the object of frenzied auctions, such as Freescale Semiconductor, continue to languish below their purchase prices.

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