Buying Privately Begins To Work Out

So, Adam Neumann wants to buy WeWork out of bankruptcy, and Don Poorleone is apparently a billionaire again. Yep, the Donald’s social media platform, Truth Social, has cracked a $7 billion valuation by moving from the private market to listing on a public market, the Nasdaq exchange in this instance. Amazingly, this valuation is based on annual revenues of barely $3 million and operating losses of almost $50 million. That doesn’t work for me but perhaps a Trump Bible (oh Lordy) is needed or a quick chat with Adam Neumann. Remember Adam tried to list WeWork publicly via IPO  in 2019 with a $47 billion valuation. After a nano-second of Wall Street scrutiny that valuation and IPO was pulled, Adam was removed and we eventually had to wait until 2021 for a $9 billion listing to happen. Today, WeWork is a zero. Such is life in the racy world of high-ego IPOs but there’s a positive aspect to these two shame-free deals. A healthy financing market needs buy-out and IPO activity to pick up. In particular, private markets where we focus our efforts need to see exits via buy-outs and IPOs. Happily, recent developments in both areas are encouraging and involve more credible leaders. Let’s see what’s really working.

Sticking with IPOs as a signal of good funding health, Californian AI play, Astera Labs, rocketed up 72% on its Nasdaq debut on March 20th giving it a $9.5 billion valuation. Social media platform, Reddit, followed suit the next day with a 48% IPO bump up and a matching $9.5 billion market capitalisation. These significant post-IPO spikes in value will bolster the confidence of others considering IPOs, and boost exit valuations. As always, confidence is critical to funding activity and a giddy IPO ‘shop window’ always helps the mood. However, regular readers will know the ‘Big Daddy’ driver of financial markets is the cost of money (or investment capital). Here too, there is increasing giddiness and activity.

Funding costs(or interest rates) reflect two things: central bank interest rates and then the extra bit (the ‘spread’ in financial jargon) added on to reflect the commercial and economic cycle risks. Well, you might be aware that central banks in most advanced economies have stopped hiking interest rates and have signalled potential rate cuts. However, the investment markets have already started to cut their add-on bit (spreads) which is a really big deal. Consider the following headlines:


Junk Issuers Rush To Refinance With Spreads Lowest Since 2022 – Bloomberg


Investors Pour Money Into US Corporate Bond Funds At Record Rate – Financial Times


Junk Bond Sales In Sterling Surge At Fastest Pace Since 2021 – Bloomberg


The term ‘junk’ refers to higher risk borrowers and is relevant to our risky world of start-ups and private equity. The headlines point to a stampede by investors to lend( through debt/bonds) to higher risk companies. In the US alone, corporate bond funds have attracted $22.8 billion of investment in the first quarter of 2024. So, this combination of greater debt availability and all-time-high equity markets attracting IPOs is the perfect environment for increased traditional private equity buy-out activity (using debt and equity). The year 2023 was one to forget for private equity deals but check out the following encouraging developments in recent weeks:


Private equity firms Advent International and CVC Capital have joined forces to make a €2 billion bid for UK-based Partner in PetFood (PPF).


US private equity firm Bright Path Sports Partners has bought a 40% stake in Ipswich Town football club for £105 million.


Canadian private equity house, Brookfield, is looking to buy a $3 billion stake in Australia’s second largest telco, Optus.


Grant Thornton US is going to sell a majority stake to private equity firm, New Mountain Capital.


Switzerland-based Partners Group has launched a $12 billion private equity secondary strategy fund.


Clearly, this mix of firms from different parts of the world are spotting opportunity. It is worth pointing out one more factor potentially in private equity thoughts. The headlines have been full of stories about technology sector domination of stock markets, AI euphoria and the concentration of investor expectations in a small group of US tech names, aka the “Maginificent 7”. However, with perfect timing, the Financial Times this week has highlighted “US small-cap stocks are suffering their worst run of performance relative to large companies in more than 20 years”. In fact, since 2020 small caps on average have risen by 24% compared to a 60% move by larger companies. That divergence in performance equates to a significant ‘discount’ valuation opportunity for anyone looking to buy smaller companies. So, what happens next?

It is reasonable to expect more buy-out activity of smaller companies which, in turn, will raise expectations and valuations in early-stage companies. The trickle-down effect of buoyant public equity markets and greater access to cheaper debt will certainly attract institutional investment capital. And, the good news is that private investors can benefit too by building a diversified portfolio of early-stage companies. Even better, Spark’s Private Portfolio investors can invest in our first ever buy-out deal of an established profitable business in the coming weeks. Yep, profitable. Call it the difference between ‘working’ and WeWork. That really is the truth, and we’d even swear on a Trump bible to that.

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