Unstructured Finance

Can American Capital find a rich suitor?

More consolidation may be coming to the world of private equity lenders. Debt-laden Allied Capital solved its long-standing problems last week when it sold itself to Ares Capital. Rival American Capital, once an S&P 500 component but now struggling for survival, could be the next takeover target.

But some investors wonder if Allied got a raw deal. Ares paid $3.47 a share in stock for a company that had a book value of $7.49 in June. One law firm has already launched a “shareholder investigation“. Similarly, American Capital’s shares trade below $3, compared with a book value of $8.76 at the end of June.

Ares Capital is one of the rare healthy players in the field. It has a strong balance sheet and minimal liquidity concerns, and it has managed to pay a dividend throughout the worst U.S. recession since the Great Depression. For an Allied shareholder used to a continuous flow of bad news, swapping that stake for an investment in a healthy company must seem like a good move.

Like Allied, American Capital has suffered as the recession reduced the value of the companies it invested in. As a result, it’s gotten harder to sell them except at distressed prices. That value reduction is a big blow for a cash-starved company that has already defaulted on $2.3 billion of debt.

Both American Capital and Allied have sold portfolio companies at heavy discounts to their purchase prices. Now with equity markets sharply up from their doomsday-scenario lows in March, American Capital is on an aggressive selling spree. Recently it sold components distributor Imperial Supplies to W.W. Grainger and life sciences equipment maker Axygen BioScience to Corning.

Hot Chocolate

How much sweeter will Kraft’s bid for Cadbury get? Chief Executive Todd Stitzer seemed to be telling investors — according to banker’s note we got hold of — that a 20 percent higher bid from Kraft, or about 12.2 billion pounds ($19.93 billion), would be a fair price. Investors don’t seem to have bought into his enthusiasm, having not bid the stock to anywhere near such a premium.

“On price, Todd seemed to admit that a 15x EBITDA multiple would be a fair price,” the note by Bank of America/Merrill Lynch sales specialist Simon Archer said. Analysts say a multiple at that level puts the price for Cadbury at around 900 pence per share.

Archer has since issued a clarification saying Stitzer’s comments “were only in the context of comparable transactions being in the mid-teens – he was not implying a fair value for the business”.

High-frequency trading: useless and manipulative?

Floor tradersThe explosion of interest in high-frequency trading has started to drag new faces to sometimes staid industry conferences. Traders who for years worked on algorithms and computer codes behind the scenes are stepping into the spotlight. They’re appearing on more and more panel discussions, feeling the need to defend their practice against the slings and arrows of politicians and regulators.

So far, they’ve managed to mix exasperation with good humor. The head of one high-frequency trading shop, speaking on a panel this week, said that if you believe everything you read in newspapers you might think the practice is “an unfair, highly profitable and socially useless trading strategy implemented by highly secretive and unregulated traders using superfast computers to compete with retail investors, manipulate markets and front run flash orders causing volatility in the financial markets and creating systemic risk.”

He argued that a more accurate definition of high-frequency trading would be, “a wide variety of highly competitive, low margin trading strategies implemented by professional market intermediaries who have invested heavily in technology that have the effect of making the markets more efficient by enhancing liquidity and transparent price discovery to the benefit of investors.”

Energy asset on block at Blackstone?

USAOne intriguing remark that Blackstone COO Tony James let slip on today’s earnings call is that it could be gearing up to sell an energy asset. 
James explained that while opportunities to exit investments weren’t numerous, it had succeeded making a profit on the sale of pharmaceutical company Stiefel. 
“We have another company in our portfolio… in the energy sector, which had some very, very exciting results finding unbelievable amounts of hydrocarbons and… that might be something we’d look to exit,” James said on a call to the media. 
He didn’t identify the company so we’re doing the guessing ourselves — out of the current energy investments Blackstone lists on its website, we reckon Kosmos Energy, which has a significant oil field in Ghana, could fit the bill.

(Additional reporting by Mike Erman)

Customer to Venture Capitalists: Please, go out of business

rebecca-s-connollyEven in the depths of a recession, venture capitalists are relentlessly upbeat, but one of their big customers poured cold water on that Thursday, asking some members gathered in Boston for the annual meeting of the National Venture Capital Association to go out of business.

“I hope some of you go out of business. I hope that does happen,” Rebecca Connolly, a partner in Fairview Capital, said on a panel. Her West Hartford, Connecticut, firm has about $3 billion under management, 70 percent of it in venture capital funds and the rest with private equity.  Fairview, a fund of funds, manages money for pension funds and endowments

Connolly said that until 2000, venture capital provided good returns but since the dotcom bubble burst in 2001 returns have been very disappointing, hardly justifying the investment. Venture capitalists are supposed to find small companies with big potential and help them grow into big companies, like Microsoft, Starbucks or Intel.

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