M&A trends and outlook for 2024

Jonathan Aiken, Partner and Head of London, discussed how a challenging economic environment is spurring the uptake of creative deal structures in a recent Ansarada Global Predictions Interview.

Which sectors, if any, do you believe will move to more aggressive growth strategies in their M&A programs, as opposed to more defensive dealmaking?

Within the mid-market, where we operate, investors strive for profitability and cashflow stability. In today’s complex investment environment, having high-revenue growth yet negative cashflow is completely out of vogue. Companies with a robust history of cashflow generation, for example the more resilient actors in the industrial and services sectors, have become good candidates for financing – or at least they don’t raise questions within investment committees or with their lenders. What one might think of as ‘traditional’ sector areas are outperforming as a result. Another example is healthcare, where macro trends such as aging populations and evolving healthcare needs in a post pandemic environment drive investment. The European luxury market has witnessed strong growth over the past few years. In France, some of the listed flagship leaders have seen phenomenal share price growth. While valuations have recently plateaued, the market boom reflects strong spending patterns of ultra-high-net-worth individuals from different regions across the globe – notably China and East Asia. Industries that have stronger cashflow and are more appealing to investors have been particularly resilient to the pressures within the global deal market. This is relevant to the mid-market, where M&A activity/volume has developed fairly well. It is at the higher end of the market where we have seen some multibillion-dollar transactions constrained due to a lack of availability of capital.

What do you think will be the biggest potential risks or challenges that dealmakers will have to contend with in 2024?

If you speak to dealmakers, the broad consensus would be the impact of unforeseen events. The global dealmaking community has lived through significant upheaval and sustained inflation. The challenges we are facing are significant and require nimble responses to seize new opportunities. Most practitioners believe that being able to react quickly to developing situations is a fundamental survival mechanism. On a micro level, it is worth sparing a thought for those managing their business through transactions, as often we hear of the difficulty in budgeting and forecasting while responding to supply chain disruption. Forecasting uncertainty and responding to market changes take up a disproportionate amount of business leaders’ time, and some do not have the necessary experience to build on. Some managers have not recently experienced significant inflation, for example, or needed to deploy price increases in their market – it is a novel experience for them. Even for leaders with 30 or 40 years of experience, the ability to respond and implement changes can be challenging. This dynamic ties into the broader dealmaking flow, as business leaders face the realization that their typical, traditional five-year business plan will not work in a challenging environment. Some businesses even have trouble forecasting growth over the next 12 months. This inherent uncertainty in the market creates a divergence between buyer and seller expectations – just one reason why dealmakers are experiencing difficulty closing transactions.

In your experience, how much more creative are dealmakers having to be, in terms of alternative deal structures, to bridge valuation gaps and get transactions over the line?

The market has come off a period of red-hot dealmaking in which the seller exercised an enormous amount of power, both in terms of the timing and terms of the transaction. During this period, we saw the dissipation, or disappearance in some cases, of dealmaking mechanisms such as earnouts. Now that dealmakers are operating in a much more uncertain environment, the balance of power has shifted, and some of these traditional mechanisms, including earnouts, are coming back to the fore to bridge the gap between buyer and seller expectations. We are also seeing a change in tack in relation to seller strategy. Whereas even in late 2022 financial sponsors would have run a competitive, fast-paced auction process, through 2023 owners of assets quietly and discreetly tested the market. This takes the form of entering into very specific conversations, seeking validation regarding buyer appetite, and even considering a bilateral process. This cautious, selective approach is very different to what we have seen in previous years. This period of relative quiet may present an interesting market environment for international buyers to consider deal opportunities. Many strategic buyers seeking cross-border opportunities have found it hard to compete against local sponsors within a competitive auction process when the market was booming. Now that valuations are more subdued, and the market is less pressured, it is an interesting time for international buyers. We will begin to see this trend play out, and it will be interesting to see how 2024 unfolds.

Amid a sea of economic and geopolitical challenges, are dealmakers dedicating more resources to due diligence to make sure potential deals get off on the right foot?

We are seeing a rise of vendor diligence across many different markets, even in markets that have not necessarily had a high level of experience in the process. In Asia, for example, a vendor will typically carry out financial, tax and other types of due diligence, whereas this was less common five years ago. ESG analysis is a newer area increasingly pursued. In the corporate carve-out space, a major cause of disagreement over value, and in many cases a potential roadblock in the deal, is within IT services, contracts and costing. In response to this challenge, we have seen a rise in thoughtful preparation of the IT diligence materials linked to IT resources for a dedicated asset and a focus on IT compliance. There is definitely more time and care spent on smoothing over potential issues. On the seller side, effective due diligence is part of de-risking a transaction and enhancing the probability of a deal crossing the line. We also see fairly rigorous and significant diligence analysis on the buyer side. Due to the shift in power between buyer and seller, the former can demand more concessions, and perhaps more price adjustments, by highlighting due diligence findings. It is in their interests to pursue the process vigorously.

About BDA Partners

BDA Partners is the global investment banking advisor for Asia. We are a premium provider of Asia-related advice to sophisticated clients globally, with over 25 years’ experience advising on cross-border M&A, capital raising, and financial restructuring. We provide global reach with our teams in New York and London, and true regional depth through our seven Asian offices in Mumbai, Singapore, Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul, and Tokyo. BDA has deep expertise in the Chemicals, Consumer & Retail, Health, Industrials, Services, Sustainability and Technology sectors. We work relentlessly to earn our clients’ trust by delivering insightful advice and outstanding outcomes.

BDA Partners has strategic partnerships with William Blair, a premier global investment banking business, and with DBJ (Development Bank of Japan), a Japanese Government-owned bank with US$150bn of assets. bdapartners.com