Monday, October 17, 2011

Has Apple Been Too Greedy?

According the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), sales of recording music in the US was cut in half over the past decade (from some $14B in 2001 to $7B in 2010). Over this same period, Apple's market capitalization multipled some 30 times. Apple's valuation explosion during this period certainly did not solely derive from its use of the music to sell iPods, but it was music that kick started Apple's value capture momentum. And while Apple flourished, its recording company partners floundered.

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal highlighted the leverage that Apple has over telecom providers eager to sell its iPhone. Sprint has apparently committed to buy a staggering $20 billion of iPhones, whether or not the company can sell the devices. Great for Apple to lock in such high-volume orders and then be able to negotiate down its component prices. But is Sprint putting a gun to its head by agreeing to Apple's aggressive terms in the highly competitive smart phone market with Android devices (now) and Windows Mobile phones (soon-to-be) challenging iPhone leadership.

Has Apple been too aggressive, too greedy in dealing with its partners? Has it sucked so much out of key ecosystems (such as music and telecom) that key elements are threatened? Has its valuation gains led to the emaciation of venture relationships? Will Apple's brand continue to be highly valued by consumers, but increasingly loathed by deal partners? Will there be a rising crescendo of push-back by value chain companies who feel that Apple has taken too much off the table for itself?

Not a problem, you say. Apple has $76 billion in cash/cash equivalents on its balance sheet and is on pace to soon be the first company ever to squirrel away over $100 billion given an annual inflow of $15-20 billion of free cash. That means Apple could make numerous major acquisitions, integrating more and more elements of its key market value chains within its own control thereby reducing the need for business development partners. Right?

Hardly. Few companies will now receive more antitrust scrutiny than Apple is likely to face over the next decade. So much currency, but so few choices on what to buy with it. Share buybacks or large dividends, yes. But these latter options while good for shareholders will not support company growth.

Squeezed between potential partner pushback and anticipated antitrust attention, Apple will find its abundance of riches a mixed blessing. Aggressive deal making has paid off, but not without challenging side-effects.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Visualizing M&A Future Moves

I love well-designed business development infographics. Infographics that portray a past story and suggest future direction. M&A infographics particularly excite me. Show me what a company has recently acquired, illustrate the product or service gaps that now exist, and then suggest future M&A activity.

Here's an example -- What's next for HP M&A? This infographic illustrates HP M&A activity for the past ten years by sector and by deal size. Then the author suggests future deals that might fill in gaps.

Of course, predicting future moves is tricky business, especially when it comes to M&A activity. Gap analysis, as useful as it is, is not the only motiviation for M&A. Sometimes management wants to consolidate existing markets -- think AT&T and T-Mobile. At other times, a company may want to move into new markets -- think Berkshire Hathaway and Burlington Northern. Other motivations abound.

Predicting M&A action is no easy chip shot. But visualizing the past provides context. And increases your odds at mapping the future.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Breaking up is hard to do

One of the terms that convinced T-Mobile to accept the offer from AT&T rather than other bidders was the large ($3 billion) breakup fee that accompanied AT&T's $39 billion bid. At 7.7%, this breakup fee is huge by typical deal standards -- such fees tend to be in the 2-3% range. For example, Lubrizol, the industrial lubricants company that recently agreed to be bought by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, will pay $200 million (2.2% of the $9 billion deal) if the break the acquisition agreement.

If there is a breakup (termination) fee in a deal structure, more often than not it goes to the acquirer if the target walks away from the deal. This fee is intended to reflect the direct and opportunity costs the acquirer incurs such as advisory expenses and executive time spent on the deal. In one study of 1,100 acquisition agreements, 55% of deals included a target breakup fee, whereas only 21% of the deals had breakup fees for both target and acquirer. Targets apparently have greater incentive to break contracts and seek other "lovers".

Technically the fee to be paid by AT&T (acquirer) to T-Mobile (target) upon deal collapse is deemed a reverse breakup fee. The $3 billion sum is not the largest such fee in history in absolute terms. For example, reflecting the difficult credit environment in 2009, Pfizer would have had to pay Wyeth $4.5 billion if it could not get necessary loan approvals to get the deal done. And AOL was on the hook for $5.4 billion if the company walked away from the Time Warner deal. (Time Warner had a reciprocal breakup fee of $3.9 billion on this deal -- in hindsight Time Warner should have bolted and paid this sum to loose itself from AOL's grip.)

However, on a percentage basis ATT's 7.7% breakup bounty tops both the Pfizer and AOL fees. T-Mobile will walk away with this largess (plus some AT&T spectrum) if regulatory authorities such as the DOJ or FCC nix the deal. AT&T's legendary regulatory team will be put to the test as it attempts to convince a hardened antitrust administration that this deal has merit. T-Mobile executives can be more relaxed as they win no matter the outcome.