Citi, M. Stanley reveal randomness of M&A advice

July 20, 2012

By Antony Currie
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

It’s hard to imagine a worse advert for the worth of M&A valuation advice than Citigroup and Morgan Stanley’s battle to put a price on their wealth management joint venture. The two Wall Street firms are in negotiations for Morgan Stanley to boost its controlling stake by 14 percent to 65 percent. But their valuations for the business are a whopping $13.5 billion apart. 

The difference is some three-fifths of the $22 billion-plus Citi reckons the entire unit is worth. There are reasons for the gap, of course – and not just that buyers are always looking for a lower price and sellers for a higher one. 

Citi, aside from a couple of small tweaks, has kept its minority investment in Morgan Stanley Smith Barney on its books at pretty much the same level ever since the two companies started the venture three years ago. That seems too optimistic: industry trading volumes are down, most similar financial firms have lost value since 2009 and the JV itself is at best a work in progress, cranking out a lackluster 12 percent pre-tax margin last quarter. 

Morgan Stanley, meanwhile, has already written down the value of its 51-percent slug, in part because holding goodwill against inflated assets eats up capital, which the bank has been working aggressively to maximize. But marking it down to less than half where Citi’s valuation stands is harsher than some expected. Analysts at Credit Suisse recently estimated that MSSB could be worth $15 billion. 

Perhaps that’s where the third-party appraiser who must now be called in will come down. Whoever it is has just over a month to come up with a number that will then bind both Citi and Morgan Stanley. There’s plenty of strategic and tactical art in M&A. But valuation is the part that ought to be most like a science. The gulf between the two owners of MSSB shows how embarrassingly random it actually is.

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