The $85 billion mega-merger of AT&T with Time Warner appears headed for consummation, which will create another big digital media company with telecom underpinnings. But will this endless scramble for eyeballs and clicks, the quest to determine which platforms finicky content consumers will choose in coming years, actually create any value for shareholders? Or will it end up like the AOL/Time Warner merger of 2000, a poster child for unduly optimistic predictions about the value of merging technology platforms?
Beyond digital media companies, questions loom about the booming M&A market in general. Is the world of deals mostly malinvestment, as David Stockman charges, or does at least some transaction activity represent organic and healthy allocations of capital? Are company valuations and purchase prices completely out of whack, due to a Fed-juiced equities market? Do stock buybacks, creative recapitalizations, and listless horizontal mergers attempt to create ersatz "financial" growth in lieu of the real thing?
All of these are open questions, and mises.org readers need no explanation of how central banks and low interest rates create malinvestment. But (cue movie trailer voice) in a monetary world controlled by central banks, the damnable answer is we can never know. That is precisely Stockman's point: because the Fed controls the most important price in the economy — the Fed Funds rate — it's impossible to know the true price of anything.
Value is subjective, and supply and demand drives prices. But both measures are expressed in dollars.
So the brilliant young tech kid who gets $30 million from a VC fund for a great new idea may have created value for society that justifies it — or may be the lucky recipient of cheap shotgun money, spread around by yield-chasing fund managers hoping whiz kid's idea pays 20X or 50X to cover losses elsewhere.
This is true of all speculative markets, to be sure. VC, M&A, and equity markets would have uneven distributions of winners and losers without the Fed. But one of the big problems with central banking generally is this: when you manipulate the cost of money and credit, you necessarily manipulate that distribution. This strengthens the perception that wealth is a rigged game, and in fact actually creates an undeserving class of Fed-connected elites in heavily "financialized" industries.
One company hoping to cash in on easy money is Vice Media, a rough and tumble media platform focused on the advertising cliche known as the "youth market." You may have happened across Vice.com, or seen their ubiquitous videos on airlines or your social media feeds. The slant is decidedly leftwing, which is no surprise, but also fairly interesting — one recent video highlighted the tragic history between Haiti and the Dominican Republic with compelling on-the-ground storytelling.
Still, it's a niche brand at best. So imagine thinking Vice.com is worth several billion dollars, ranking it among the most valuable private companies in America. Imagine thinking it will soon be worth $50 billion, perhaps within a decade. Imagine thinking the company is wildly undervalued, so that you pull $70 million in spare change from your back pocket and invest in something you don't quite understand but imagine represents youth and revolutionary thinking.
We might call such a person a fool, someone suffering from historical amnesia when it comes to the dot.com and housing bubbles, who forgets the importance of fundamentals and real earnings in overvalued companies. We might call them a sucker who deserves to lose money. Or we might call them a genius, if it all works out. In fact that $70 million investor back in 2012 was no less than Rupert Murdoch — by all accounts a brilliant and shrewd media mogul, not to mention hard nosed investor. And he's not alone, as a very serious private equity player — TPG — invested $450 million just a year ago.
Fast forward to today, and Vice Media is reeling from a combination of lagging revenue, a confusing array of platforms, and the struggle to figure out millennial TV habits. So the next round of Murdochs and TPGs might not be easily identified.
Vice, mind you, produces "content" rather than tangible goods or services. And not just any content, but edgy content, which requires an almost preternatural understanding of the shifting social media and hipster landscapes. Edgy is amorphous, and quickly lost. Worse yet is the risk of a stale company imagining it's still edgy, i.e., lacking self-awareness. Now-shuttered Rare comes to mind, as does the struggling Buzzfeed.
All of this suggests Vice needs the right people, and a constant new stream of them, to stay relevant. This is a tall order even in the older, slower print world, as anyone familiar with Rolling Stone or Spin can attest. So investing in Vice truly means investing in people, like its wild man founder Shane Smith, not management, products, brands, processes, or systems. And people are notoriously unreliable.
Rupert Murdoch and TPG should be worried.
Addendum: the deal world today is not just a large-cap, headline-making phenomenon. Deal activity across company sizes is robust, both in terms of volume and value, despite cooling somewhat from a recent 2015 peak. M&A buyers spend nearly $5 trillion annually, more than $1.5 trillion of it in the US.
The two primary categories of M&A distinguishes between "strategic" and "financial" buyers.
Strategic acquisitions involve existing corporations scooping up competitors, new service lines, new brands, or new technology, with the goal of greater vertical integration and the economies of scale and management such integration makes possible. "Synergy" is the awful buzzword frequently used to describe big corporations either merging with a similarly sized company, snapping up smaller bolt-on businesses as subsidiaries, or absorbing established companies to fill holes in their product and service offerings.
Vertical integration, however, comes at a potential price. As Rothbard posits in Man, Economy, and State, corporations that become too large and dominant in a field risk losing perspective on profit and loss with regard to their intra-subsidiary transfer pricing, the amount each subsidiary "charges" the others for goods and services. Corporate executives who buy up too many similar companies might find themselves with imperfect information about internal profits and losses, and thus (like Soviet planners) become unable to allocate resources and price end goods/services effectively.
As a general rule strategic buyers are less sensitive to interest rates and central bank signals, because big existing corporations often bring cash to the table or swap their own valuable stock. When Amazon simply plunks down $13.7 billion in cash to buy Whole Foods, it's not doing so to make a quick buck or even take advantage of low interest rates (though it did issue corporate debt to raise some of the money). It's not openly engaging in the kind of financial engineering David Stockman decries, although he does frequently criticize Amazon's lack of profits and dividends relative to its sky-high P/E ratio. In essence, strategic buyers (especially public corporations) often have the luxury of long-range decision-making.
Financial buyers, however, generally consist of private equity or venture funds whose investors want to buy a company and sell it within a three to five year window. As Peter Thiel describes in Zero to One, for every investment that hits, most will fizzle. So the goal is to avoid too much downside risk while biding time to unearth the big winning investment — a story Thiel knows well from his experience with PayPal, Ebay, and Facebook (note that private equity firms often invest in large public companies; the strategic vs. financial distinction is based on the identity of the buyer rather than the target entity).
During the heady go-go years of private equity M&A, from the mid-1990s until the Crash of 2008, Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke demonstrated their commitment to making credit cheap and easy, and to making sure stock markets didn't crash. So private equity players responded rationally, buying up companies with 1 part equity to 6, 7, 8, or more parts debt. Often the 1 part debt was divided into tranches and split between various funds, isolating the risk of losing equity even further.
Keep in mind most corporate interest payments are deductible for tax purposes, while dividend payments are not. So it made sense to load up a company with cheap debt, and use revenue to pay off that debt quickly (while deducting the interest portion) rather than funding non-deductible capital expenditures to improve future productivity. Why worry about capex, product development, or improving factories when you plan to sell the company in three years anyway? Load it up with debt, fire existing management, install overseers, put every available dollar toward debt service, and get out before any long-term cracks began to show. After all, there was always another private equity firm (or IPO) waiting to buy.
This model is what propelled Mitt Romney from being merely a rich man to being a very rich one.
It's hardly surprising that fund managers and corporate CEOs developed a short-term mindset: monetary policy almost demanded it. And it's hardly surprising that enterprise values rose to crazy heights, with many financial deals closing for a purchase price of 10 or 12X earnings.
It was all driven by cheap credit, and it all came crashing down in 2008. But if M&A volume is any indicator, we haven't learned a thing.