Uncertainty and risk surrounding future outlook are two factors that significantly impact on transaction multiples for the sale and purchase of businesses.
We are in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the great depression, combined with particularly uncertain global economic conditions weighing heavily on the New Zealand economy, and a fiscal monetary bail-out in New Zealand that will hang-over the economy for years to come; and yet we are experiencing multiples, and indeed values, for the sale and purchase of businesses, being maintained at pre Covid-19 levels.
There are several factors that explain why this is.
Values of businesses are not determined by sentiment, but rather the financial and operating fundamentals under-pinning a business. These fundamentals are determined from financial statements and analyses of business operations and the like. Yes, for some specific sectors we will see distressed businesses come to market as the business is ‘brought to its knees’ by the economic downturn, but if the fundamental business drivers remain intact then so will values. Business operators may need to transform their business model, but in the medium to long-term quality businesses will still continue to command pre Covid-19 multiples, and indeed values.
Furthermore, business values reflect a long term view of their operating environment, rather than through a short-term lens. What is paramount is how the drivers of the business will be impacted by what happens in the medium to long-term. Yes, whilst in the short-term we may experience a fall in value of businesses due to the ‘shock’ of a potential economic down-turn as a result of Covid -19, business values ‘look’ beyond this.
A good illustration of this ‘playing’ out is if we observe how the NZX indices responded to Covid-19.
The NZX 50 was at 11,426 at the end of the first week of March 2020 (just one week following the first case of Covid-19 in New Zealand and around the time that potential alert level restrictions were being muted). It dropped to 8,499 on March 23 (when we went to alert level 3; ahead of alert level 4 two days later) – a drop of 25%. Since this time it has steadily recovered to 9,797 (15% bounce-back) at the end of March, and by the end of June it was back to pre-covid levels at 11,451. As of 7th August it sat at 11,647 – some 2% above the pre Covid-19 level.
The initial drop was even more marked for the NZX Small Cap index, which fell by one-third between the end of the first week of March (59,658) to March 23rd (39,745). It’s bounce-back has been slower – 7.5% bounce-back to 42,709 by the end of March, and then back to almost pre-Covid levels at the end of July at 57,414. As of 7th August it sat at 62,376 – some 5% above the pre-Covid level.
A comparison of the respective NZX indices to Covid-19 highlights several particularly interesting factors.
Firstly, the greater fall for the small-cap index, I suggest is explained by the fact that because of their relative size, it would take a smaller downturn to have an adverse impact on a smaller business than for a larger business. Put another way, all things being equal, the economic and business downturn resulting from Covid-19 would have the potential to more drastically impact on a smaller business than a larger business. This is because in a smaller business there would be a lower level of profitability and also of financial reserves, and
Secondly, the slower bounce-back for smaller businesses, is explained I suggest by the fact that there would not be the level of information relating to fundamentals of smaller businesses relative to larger businesses. Therefore a larger business is better able to re-position itself to go forward post an economic and business downturn.
A further reason we are seeing business values remain buoyant is to do with the economics of Supply and Demand.
The supply of good quality businesses coming to the market is at a particularly low ‘ebb’ currently. I maintain that there are two main reasons for this;
- due to the uncertain times, owners of businesses are holding off coming to the market. Selling your business is a particularly time-consuming process, as well as being an emotional ‘wrench’ on the vendor. In these circumstances business owners are not prepared to risk an unsuccessful process which is more a possibility in uncertain times, and
- there is a perception that potential buyers of businesses are presently bargain hunting and therefore a vendor with a good quality business might well be wasting his or her time.
On the flip side demand remains buoyant.
This demand is being fuelled by several factors.
Firstly, a new buyer group has entered the market, particularly for SME businesses. This group is expats returning to New Zealand with capital looking for a home, and
Secondly, the relative returns on other asset classes, mean that the return profile from investing in a business is particularly attractive. Buying a business at say 3 to 5 times earnings, which might return 20% post-tax, is particularly attractive against say 2% post-tax in the bank and around 5% post tax from commercial property.
In conclusion, I would not see there being any fundamental change to those factors combining to maintaining business values in the face of the economic down-turn associated with Covid-19, resulting from further lock-downs and continuation of Covid-19.