This article was originally published on LinkedIn
RIA group-think has been pro-consolidation for the past decade, and increasingly so. You’ve read the headlines about the pace of deals reaching a fever pitch last year and continuing into this year. We’ve been skeptical of the believed necessity for RIA consolidation in this blog in the past, and have yet to be dissuaded from our position. But opinions are only opinions, and facts are facts. This seems like an opportune moment to check our feelings against reality.
How is RIA consolidation performing so far? The verdict from the public markets isn’t very encouraging. We looked at three publicly-traded consolidators of wealth management businesses: Silvercrest, CI Financial, and Focus.
Over the past five years, Silvercrest Asset Management Group (SAMG) showed cumulative share price appreciation of less than 65%, underperforming the Russell 3000 by over 2200 basis points. To be fair, SAMG pays a reasonable dividend, and its wealth management clients are probably not 100% invested in equities. Nevertheless, we think of RIA returns as being leveraged to the market, and in an era of strong markets a wealth management firm with organic growth plus an acquisition strategy should – in theory - be able to outperform broad indices.
SAMG didn’t beat the market, but it outperformed a couple of rivals. Focus Financial Partners trades at less than 25% above its IPO price from the summer of 2018, in spite of a tremendous number of acquisitions and sub-acquisitions. Focus doesn’t pay a dividend, so that 22% cumulative return is the total (aggregate) return for FOCS shareholders since going public. CI Financial has fared even worse, as the Canadian shop revered for its willingness to pay top dollar hasn’t posted a positive return over the past five years, even if you count dividends.
Keep in mind, all of the above happened in an era of strong equity markets and low interest rates – which should be optimal conditions to consolidate the RIA space.
Obligatory car story
The business climate of the late 1990s was one in which consolidation was rife in nearly every industry. Rollup IPOs were the SPACs of the day, newly minted dot-coms were trading their highly inflated equity currency for other companies’ highly inflated equity currencies, and old economy manufacturers were teaming up to share branding, technology, and overhead. Sometimes this worked very well, and sometimes it didn’t.
It's often said that most M&A results in failure. The free-wheeling, mass-market managers at Chrysler could never match expectations with the hierarchical, engineering-led team at Daimler-Benz. The loveless marriage resulted in unfortunate offspring like the Pacifica crossover and the R-class. Less than a decade after the 1998 merger, Daimler unloaded Chrysler to Cerberus for about 25% of the $36 billion it had originally paid.
At the same time, a more unlikely pairing actually worked. The 1998 sale of Lamborghini to Volkswagen’s Audi division turned out to be wildly successful. Italian styling and German build quality make a good combination, and today Lamborghini sells almost fifty times as many cars annually as it did before Audi bought it. It hasn’t caught up with Ferrari yet, but it’s close enough to make the guys in Modena pay attention.
Looking back on the two auto industry transactions sheds some light on the expected performance of RIA deals. One way to compare Daimler-Chrysler and Audi-Lamborghini is to consider why they happened in the first place.
Daimler-Chrysler was a bulking-up, bigger-is-better, merger-of-equals. The logic was driven by internally-focused economies of scale, and it wasn’t clear who was in charge. That left an environment that was unusually hospitable to culture clashes that undermined opportunities, synergies, and (ultimately) sales.
Audi-Lamborghini was product-focused, and it was clear from the beginning who acquired who. Huge increases in Lambo sales and the opportunity to equal or surpass their old rival with the Prancing Horse kept internal dissent at bay.
Which transaction looks most like the typical RIA deal? The investment thesis for investing in RIAs (whether asset management or wealth management) is straightforward: sticky revenue and operating leverage produces a sustainable coupon with market tailwinds. In an era of ultra-low yields, it’s the best growth-and-income trade available, and it’s become a crowded trade with a diverse array of institutional investors and family offices. As we’ve said many, many times in this blog, it’s easy to see why one would invest in investment management.
Investing in RIAs is one thing; consolidating them is quite another. Still, the themes that drive industry consolidation are similarly defensible:
Scale. With 15,000 or so RIAs in the United States alone, solving for fragmentation seems like an obvious play. Consolidation wonks tout the financial leverage that comes with economies of scale, enhancing margins, distributions, and value.
Access. Larger firms theoretically can source more sophisticated investment products, technology stacks, and marketing programs.
Problem Solving. Sellers have to have an impetus to give up control over their own destiny, and consolidation is often seen as the solution for aging leadership (or at least aging ownership) without a compelling succession path.
Financial Engineering with Debt. Covenant-light debt at low rates has made capital widely available for public and private acquirers alike. Banks will typically lend at 3x and non-bank lenders at as much as 6x. With Libor near zero, even yield premiums on the order of 500 to 600 basis points make LBOs compelling.
Financial Engineering with Equity. Multiple arbitrage has been the handmaid of cheap debt. At one point, it was “buy at five to six times, sell at eight to nine times.” Then the spread was 9 to 12. Then it was 12 to 15. Then it went further. The whisper numbers usually outpace reality, but the logic is the same.
All the above is widely accepted in the industry, and it’s easy to see why. But if Fed activity stalls equity markets, while at the same time raising the cost of borrowing, things could change abruptly. This wouldn’t just threaten industry consolidation for financial reasons, it might also expose some flaws in the consolidation thesis.
Diseconomies of Scale
If you put ten RIAs together that each make $5 million in EBITDA, your combined operation will ostensibly make $50 million in EBITDA. Your holding and management operation, however, will probably need an executive team with a C-suite, an accounting department, a marketing department, legal, compliance, investor relations, and a couple of pilots for your jet. They’ll all need office space in a nice building, even if they mostly work from home. Aggregate profitability will inevitably be eroded by monitoring costs.
Some of this expense may be replacing functions that would previously have happened at the subsidiary RIA level, but not all of them. Is there enough expense synergy in consolidation to cover the overhead costs of a consolidator? I doubt it.
In the asset management space, there is an argument that AUM can be added faster than overhead, and margins can expand almost infinitely (we’ve seen some big ones). In wealth management, it’s a tough slough. When Focus Financial went public, we thought that, even with massive growth, it would be hard to get their adjusted EBITDA margin above 25% - a level we’re accustomed to seeing reported at wealth management firms of comparatively modest proportions. A publicly traded consolidator might have more than 100 souls on board at the management company level. That’s a lot of payroll to cover with subsidiary-level synergies.
Are small firms disadvantaged when it comes to necessary products and services? With custodians eager to accommodate all manner of investment products, outsourced compliance, subscription-based tech, and scalable marketing, it’s easier than it has ever been to compete as a sub-billion dollar RIA. Scale enables firms to have positions to manage these functions, but it doesn’t provide the functions themselves. We aren’t experts in RIA operations, but we’ve yet to see a small firm struggle because it couldn’t get what it needed (or wanted).
Exit and Succession
Consolidators offer exit capital for RIA founders. In that regard, they can resolve the standoff between generations of leadership and pay senior members a price that next-gen staff either cannot or will not pay. But a cheaper source of capital (or greater appetite for risk) is not a surrogate for succession.
Since most of the consolidators in the industry are relatively new, we don’t know a lot about whether these models are sustainable. RIAs are not capital intensive, but they are highly dependent on staff to manage both money and relationships. Often the staff who will generate returns for the consolidator in the future don’t get a lot of equity consideration in the transaction. And will the founding generation work as hard for their new boss as they did for themselves?
These conundrums have led many consolidators to structure earnouts or develop hybrid ownership models that share equity returns in some form or other with subsidiary RIAs. One touts promises to "never turn an entrepreneur into an employee” – which sounds reasonable. Ultimately, though, the staff at subsidiary operations are sharing equity returns with the parent company, and the principal/agent dilemma may be less a dichotomy and more of a spectrum.
As such, the consolidator will be paying for a firm built by highly motivated founders and getting a firm that will ultimately be run by differently motivated successors. RIA consolidation is the act of simultaneously acquiring the legacy operating asset and accepting the pro forma succession liability.
Most RIAs, by far, operate on a debt-free basis. Usually, this is for the obvious reason that there isn’t much of an asset base to finance, so why bother (?). Consolidators, on the other hand, frequently rely on debt financing and, as deal prices have increased, so have leverage ratios. Financing a cash flow stream that is in many ways leveraged to Fed activity works very well in the era of declining and low interest rates – as we have seen.
Rising rates and falling (or stagnant) markets lead to higher debt burdens and lower cash flows to service that debt. Add to that the threat of inflation increasing payroll burden. In normal times, there would be enough equity cushion to protect against default. With higher deal multiples – based on highly adjusted EBITDA measures - and the massive leverage available from non-bank financing, we could be in for some nasty surprises.
If coverage starts weakening, deal activity will fall off, and multiples will drop. If multiples drop, acquirers won’t be able to exit on satisfactory terms. Without equity compensation as a carrot, high performers will find an exit for themselves. The unfortunate reality of leveraged RIAs is that their assets get on the elevator and go home every night, but the liabilities never leave.
I’m not calling the end of the RIA consolidation trend. For many reasons, it could continue for years to come. But the performance of publicly traded consolidators has been lackluster, despite favorable conditions in which those business models should thrive. Now that we have the prospect of RIA stagflation, it could become very difficult to maintain a land-grab mentality and operate as if acquirers are valued on the basis of price-per-press-release.
Matt Crow is president of Mercer Capital