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Private Equity Valuation: Terminal Multiple Is All That Matters

A lot gets written, and even more gets discussed, about how to value private companies for the purposes of PE or VC investment. There is an awful lot of "Mongolian talk" going around, a translation of the Chinese term, 胡说 , meaning senseless drivel. PEs often use irrelevant or misleading comps to justify a lowball valuation. Companies are no less guilty, setting their valuation expectations unrealistically high, based on hear-say about other deals being done or a misreading of current stock market p/e multiples.

So, how do you work out a fair valuation? The only way I know is if both sides agree on the same set of facts to advance from. That is already challenge enough. How big a challenge?

Below, I share part of an email memo I sent to a large Chinese industrial equipment manufacturer. Their controlling shareholder hopes to sell down some of its shares, while also raising some new capital for the business. They are a sophisticated group, with strong management. They approached several investment banks, including ours, to represent them in the capital raising. We made the final cut, and they then insisted that the advisor they choose must achieve a valuation for them of at least 10X this year's net income.

In more than just the two words "that's unreasonable", I set out why they need to be more accommodating with reality.

"Your goal, which I thoroughly share, is to bring in a first-rate PE and get the best price for a valuable asset. I would work with all my diligence to achieve that. But, let's look frankly and factually at current market conditions. At the moment, domestically-listed Chinese companies in [your] industry are trading at a trailing p/e of 28X and forward (this year's) p/e of 22x. Both have fallen by approx. one-third in the last year. (The 22X is the basis we should use, to compare like-with-like. You have set your valuation target of +10X based on this year's net income.)

Your valuation target of +10X is a discount to quoted comps of 50% or narrower. That is a smaller discount, and so higher entry valuation for PE firms, than deals being done now.

As you know, all PE deals, since they involve illiquid companies often years away from IPO exit, are always done at discount to quoted comps. The discount is not fixed, but the only time PE deals were closed routinely at prices over 10X (rarely if ever above 15X) was two years ago or more when comparable stock market p/e valuations (generally on the CHINEXT) were 70X-100X previous year's net. A rich price indeed, and for a while, it had a levitating effect on PE valuations.

Current market conditions are that there are no investments from first-line PEs with terminal multiples at +10X. I emphasize the word "terminal multiple" because quite often - too often in our experience - a PE will offer a higher multiple at term sheet stage, to win the competitive right to pursue exclusive due diligence. These deals are almost always "repriced" at closing to a level below 10X, when PE firm has most of the leverage. PE will claim they turned up "new facts" in DD, as they always do, that justify the repricing. They promise you +10x in a term sheet knowing they will only close the deal at a lower price, when all other interested investors have vanished from the scene. Unfair? Duplicitous? Get used to it. It's the way the game is played.

The other common occurrence in China PE is that there is a headline multiple of +10X but it is linked to an aggressive next year + this year (sometime even three year) profit guarantee. The level is set by PE firm in full expectation that company will not meet the profit targets, so triggering the ratchet, often quite punitive. This process will bring the terminal multiple down significantly. We've seen and heard of deals where this terminal multiple is half the headline number at signing of term sheet or Share Purchase Agreement. In other words, the SPA has a headline multiple of 12X, but terminal multiple, after ratchet is triggered, works out to 6X-7X.

From my experience, the ratchet is triggered in over half PE deals done in China. In the case of some leading China PEs, [names omitted to shield the guilty], the ratchet is triggered in over 80% of the deals they do. The ratchet trigger is very unfortunate for the company, and reflects the fact they are badly advised, by advisory firms paid a fee based on "headline valuation at closing" not terminal valuation.

The other condition attached to deals with headline p/e of +10X is a high IRR (usually +20% p.a. simple interest) for buybacks triggered by "no qualifying IPO". The buyback is a feature of almost all PE deals done in China. As you would be financially liable for such a payment, if I work as your investment banker, I'd want to negotiate this mechanism very carefully with PE, to assure your best interests are fully protected. It'll mean a fight with the PE firms, but it will be gentlemanly. You want an IRR of no more than 10%. Why? One way to think of it is that for every 100 basis points the buyout IRR is fixed above LIBOR, you can argue the terminal multiple falls by 0.3X to 0.5X, because of the contingent liability.

Yours is a highly cyclical industry. We are now in the downward loop, heading for the bottom of cycle. This negatively impacts valuation. Your cap table, particularly the fact the company is controlled by a CEO who has no capital directly invested in the business, also negatively impacts valuation. For last three years (2009, 2010, 2011) your net income has been flat, and net margins have fallen by almost half. This too negatively impacts valuation. That's three strikes already. You're not "out", as in baseball. But, it's a three-ton weight pushing down your terminal multiple.

I can promise you that if we work together, you will get the best outcome available in current marketplace, and be working with a firm that shares your commitment to integrity, professionalism and accountability.

But, if you do decide to move forward with the other advisor, I'd urge you to ask them to address the specific points raised here, and structure their compensation on an "all or nothing" basis: they only earn a fee if the terminal multiple is above 10X, as they are now promising.

A seller's focus on valuation is understandable. But, too often in our experience, it can play into the hands of both the PE investor and your investment banker. Both will encourage your expectations knowing that the final bill on valuation will only be presented to you in two to three year's time. More often than not, only they will be feeling victorious at that point.

Cordially,
Peter"

This company decided to retain the other investment bank.