short selling as an investment tool: risk arbitrage

what it is

Risk arbitrage is an investment strategy based on exploiting pricing anomalies in mergers and acquisitions.  It’s one of the older hedge fund-like activities in the financial markets.

Let’s say that company A, which is trading at $30 a share, announces a bid to acquire company B, which is trading at $50 a share.  The bid is for stock, at a proposed rate of two shares of company A stock for each share of company B.

after a bid is announced

The bid will have two consequences:

–company B is “in play.”  Chances are it won’t survive as an independent company.   B’s top management and board of directors will be focussed on obtaining a higher price than A has initially offered, and possibly on finding a more suitable (or la least, different) merger partner (see my post on black and white knights).

–the way professional investors evaluate B’s stock changes.  Right now, and for as long as acquisition is a possibility, B’s stock no longer exists as an independent thing.  In the simplest case, one where the merger is friendly, no other bidder is in sight, regulatory and shareholder approval appears assured and the date for merger is also reasonably certain, B’s stock is already A’s stock under a different name.

In this case, the arbitrage is straightforward.  Shares of A are trading at $30.  Shares of B, which are really A shares in disguise, are trading at $25.  Therefore, the arbitrageur buys B and sells A short until the two prices–adjusted for the cost of money until the merger is completed–converge.

Life isn’t always this simple.  Arguably, a skillful risk arbitrageur doesn’t want it to be, either, since in the plain vanilla case just described, the arbitrage opportunity is gone in a flash.  The arbitrageur’s analysis of a bid situation typically has three parts:

1.  What is the true value of company B to a trade buyer, or–arbitrageur’s nirvana–a private equity firm?

2.  What are the chances of achieving this value?  In particular, who would pay the full price?  …will that entity bid?  …what regulatory obstacles would he face?

3.  What happens if the bid on the table is withdrawn?

The calculation of the price B should be trading at is a straightforward expected value.  The arbitrageur’s decision to buy or not will be a return on invested funds keyed off it.

what the price of B is saying

Figuring that it would take six months after announcement for an agreed merger to take place, the cost of funds should only amount to one or two percent of the price paid for B shares.  In this case, B shares should initially trade, I think, somewhere around $57 (remember it’s a 2-for-1 deal) and gradually drift up toward the $60 offer price.

Sometimes, the price of B spikes above the offer price.  This usually indicates that arbitrageurs believe a better bid is in the offing, either from company A or from another party.

Sometimes, the price of B goes up, but only modestly.  This typically signals arbitrageurs’ beliefs that regulatory or other hurdles diminish the chances of the combination ever taking place.

Occasionally, the price of A will drop sharply, indicating the stock market doesn’t like the deal at all.  In an agreed merger, this will drag B’s stock down with it.  Often, there’s good reason for investor worry.  On the other hand, a bid announced in March of last year would doubtless have unleashed a torrent of selling in A’s stock.

before a bid–prospective arbitrage vs. value investing

Actual arbitrage is event-driven.  What do arbitrageurs do all day if all their capital is committed to deals?  Like other professional investors, they go to conferences or to the gym.  Maybe they blog, although that would be hard to get past the compliance department.

On the other hand, what if there are no deals?  Sometimes, arbitrage firms try to anticipate areas where merger and acquisition activity may be brewing and buy shares of likely acquisition targets.  When I started writing this section I was tempted to say that in doing so, these firms act just as ordinary value investors would.  While it’s true that growth investors end up holding acquirers and value investors their targets, I don’t think my thought is quite right.

It is possible, I think, to identify broad areas where, conceptually at least, industry consolidation is likely.  For example, when the EU began to drop customs controls at the borders between member countries, this unleashed a multi-year wave of mergers and acquisitions in the grocery industry.  Supermarkets wanted to rationalize their distribution networks and achieve larger scale to give them more bargaining power with their suppliers.  This, in turn, triggered a second wave of consolidation, this time among packaged goods companies, as they sought to reestablish their negotiating advantage over the supermarkets.

At present, the computer hardware and software industries strike me as ones where consolidation will continue.  Also, China seems to me to be very eager to turn its dollar holdings into physical assets by buying companies that either will provide that country with natural resources or that will be distribution outlets for its finished goods.  Washington, however, like Paris, seems bent on preventing this from happening in the US.

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