The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc globally on a big scale. The COVID-19 threatens lives while the measures required to stop its spread threaten livelihoods. The combination has forced numerous businesses into financial distress and will continue to impact businesses for months to come.
Due to this pandemic, there are three categories of firms available for transactions: firms that have advantaged from the crisis (value likely to be up), those that were healthy before the pandemic and are now distressed, stressed, or shot down (value likely to be down), and firms that were distressed or teetering pre-pandemic and are now even worse off (value going down even further).
Since the coronavirus crisis and the resulting distress aren’t size-specific, industry-specific, or geographically restricted, private equity investor of every type on the buy/sell-side of M&A transactions need to come up with a high-pressure, high-risk period in an economy so distinct that it is not possible to predict precisely based on previous recessions or historical models. Even as the market has flipped from fierce competition for fewer deals and seller’s market of high valuations to a buyer’s market of more deals at fewer valuations, a large number of deals will be distressed. For dealmakers who are accustomed to healthy company transactions, the idea of distressed investment offers big opportunity, but also a big challenge.
Distressed investment is to healthy company investment as sprinting is to marathoning. While both of them are running races, they have very non-transferable and unique characteristics and requirements to compete effectively. Just like a marathoner isn’t likely to do well in a sprint without substantial support and preparation, a healthy company investor diving head-first into the distressed M&A market is likely to find themselves struggling to keep up and without sufficient risk mitigation. But those that have the power to adapt to this new normal will have opportunities for substantial returns.
Can the Business Adapt Quickly to Survive?
As the business emerges from its immediate crisis, distress creates the chance for an investor to get it right. After developing a deep understanding of how the business got to the condition it is in, you’re in a position to pinpoint what can be changed to improve performance going forward. The immediate to-do list should comprise an analysis of the company’s days payable outstanding (or DPO), vendor contracts, historical liabilities, capital structure, workforce, days sales outstanding (or DSO), pricing, customer base, structure, along with shedding of non-money-making/non-core locations, units, and assets. While forecasts are challenging today, business fundamentals remain. More money has to come in than goes out; it’s typical that 20% of the revenue generates 80% of the profit, and bet on good management every time.
When it comes to predicting the capability of a distressed business to survive and eventually thrive in the long-term, investors usually look backward by challenging every line on the income statement and the balance sheet and look forward based on consumer-trend and economic forecasts. No one has a clear picture of how consumers will behave once a reliable forecast is available, and mandates are lifted, thanks to the uncertainty that the coronavirus pandemic has injected into today’s market. It has become important for the long-term viability assessment to challenge every assumption about the behaviors of the consumer in the same way that the historical analysis has always challenged all the line items within the financials. Will customers return to restaurants and stores, or will the coronavirus pandemic-driven migration to online sales change the retail landscape irreversibly? Will people return to hotels, airplanes, and face-to-face interactions, or have they become so accustomed to digital interactions that those sections will never return to the pre-2020 levels?
Plus, demand is not the only uncertainty. It is important to question the assumptions around supply too since you aren’t dealing with just a single faltering business, but with whole faltering industries. Look at the whole supply chain, from distribution to facilities to parts, and factor in where supplies are coming from – are they being produced somewhere abroad, where production could be closed even as the US opens again?
Business managers and investors who get the answers to questions like these right will be the ones who are positioned to succeed in the upcoming years.
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