Dealmakers sifting through coronavirus slump for opportunities
Singapore's M&A activity has slowed down in most sectors amid the financial market volatility.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to pull the United States economy out of the Great Depression by launching the Buy Now Campaign in 1933 to encourage people to start spending instead of waiting for lower prices.
It is a bit too early to make a similar call now, but dealmakers worldwide - from investment bankers to private equity firms - are already seeking out opportunities in businesses that might emerge as the most resilient on the other side of the coronavirus-triggered slump.
All recessions end in time and give way to a period of recovery. Consolidation of businesses through mergers and acquisitions (M&A) is part of the process of repairing a broken economy.
As the pandemic sent financial markets reeling, the decade-long boom in M&As also ground to a halt. The opportunities may not be forthcoming for a while but industry experts are confident that deal-making will come back roaring across sectors and asset classes.
Some of Singapore's worst-hit sectors - from retail and hospitality to real estate - might provide the best bargains.
"During this period, companies with strong balance sheets will have the advantage as they will have the financial flexibility and therefore will be likely to be on the lookout for good opportunities in M&A deals," said Mr David Cheng, OCBC Bank's head of corporate finance.
"Most companies are remaining on the sidelines in order to observe how the current situation pans out before they make their moves."
Investment bankers are advising companies on how to conserve cash until the time is ripe to move in on potential targets. Private equity firms - which raise funds from institutions and wealthy individuals and then invest that in buying and selling businesses - are sitting on a US$2 trillion (S$2.83 trillion) war chest that could be put to work as soon as equity valuations start to show signs of stability.
A recent survey from global law firm White & Case found that Asia-based dealmakers and those from around the world expect a robust market this year, despite looming challenges.
It noted that 82 per cent of respondents in Asia expect M&A activity to increase this year while 50 per cent of global respondents indicated that they would expect to do more deals.
About 70 per cent of mainland China respondents expect to carry out more acquisitions than last year, a view shared by 55 per cent of Hong Kong respondents and 61 per cent of Singaporeans.
The potential deals will not be limited by domicile, with 78 per cent respondents in Singapore looking to carry out cross-border transactions.
"Many see a downturn as an opportunity, particularly if valuations come down as a result. Once businesses can evaluate the virus' impact on the market and the situation has stabilised, it's likely that we'll see renewed optimism," said Mr Alex Zhang, White & Case partner and head of China and China M&A.
The value of M&A deals in South-east Asia hit their highest level the first quarter since at least 2001, said financial news and data provider Mergermarket. While the region bucked the slowdown trend in most of the Asia Pacific, Singapore's deal value decreased by 22.4 per cent in the first quarter.
Still, Singapore accounted for two of the top five deals in South-east Asia: Yinson Holdings' purchase of a majority stake worth US$532 million in offshore oil and gas services peer Ezion Holdings; and the US$8 billion merger between CapitaLand Mall Trust and CapitaLand Commercial Trust.
"Singapore's M&A activity has slowed down in most sectors amid the financial market volatility. However, real estate sector was a noticeable exception and topped the deal list again," said Mergermarket.
The lockdowns will only reinforce that wave of consolidation.
Singapore Reits (S-Reits) already on the M&A radar include several companies from mid-cap industrial trusts such as AIMS APAC to Soilbuild Business Space and larger ones including Frasers Hospitality Trust, Far East Hospitality Trust and Ascott Residence Trust.
Hotel Reits like Frasers Hospitality and Far East Hospitality are also attractive privatisation candidates as they have been least active in tapping capital markets since listing.
In food and beverage, SunMoon, QAF and Delfi stand out for their brand premiums and may be on the radar of potential acquirers.
Margins of most technology companies have been hit, first from the United States-China trade war and now because of the upending of supply chains.
M&A or privatisation is a viable route for some - like Hi-P, Fu Yu, Spindex, Sunningdale - to survive the challenging environment.
These companies can also be targets of synergistic acquisitions by a bigger peer seeking economies of scale and increased market share.
Consolidation can also help the smaller healthcare players - Singapore O&G, Asian Healthcare Specialists and Talkmed - to sharpen their competitive edge by offering a wider range of services.
The high-profile bankruptcy of privately-owned Hin Leong Trading has also put into focus companies involved in the fuel trading value chain.
There is talk that the failed trader may eventually be rescued by one of its existing stakeholders.
PetroChina, China's largest oil and gas producer, holds a 25 per cent stake in the Lim family storage business Universal Terminal, and a 50 per cent share in Singapore Refining Company. State-run China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation, or Sinopec, the world's largest refiner by capacity, has also been tipped as a potential acquirer.
Sinopec and PetroChina not only have the deep pockets and investment appetite to fund an investment of this scale, but they also have leverage as major trade creditors to Hin Leong.
Many see a downturn as an opportunity, particularly if valuations come down as a result. Once businesses can evaluate the virus' impact on the market and the situation has stabilised, it's likely that we'll see renewed optimism.
MR ALEX ZHANG, White & Case partner and head of China and China M&A.
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