Dear John Thain,
I am intrigued to see you talking to T.P.G., although the media seems to only care about discussing capital infusions from the P.E. firm and hedge fund manager. With the recent Clear Channel conflict reverberating throughout the financial system it’s never been more clear the friction points that exist between investment banks and the other firms with which they interact. Building a collaborative relationship with a large private equity firm will give Merrill the ability to innovate their business model and profit where other banks are trying to mitigate losses. Would T.P.G. be in a better position with Merrill seeding their funds? Absolutely. Would Merrill have a better franchise if they were assured to be retained as an adviser for all/most of T.P.G.’s acquisitions (and likewise for portfolio companies)? Absolutely. Would financing large deals be easier if both sides (lender and borrower) have a stake in the transaction being completed and the total P&L of the deal (debt and equity)? Absolutely.
The best part is the model already exists and been proven out: Goldman Sachs. Goldman Sachs Capital Partners is one of the top fee payers amongst private equity funds, showing a clear benefit to Goldman’s advisory business. Goldman has been able to be aggressive in moving loans throughout the recent credit market turmoil–having a large P.E. operation, the fee income from their equity investments provides a positive balance to the negative marks for loans. In good times Goldman’s private equity arm generated profitable loans for itself and other banks (wow, how far those days seem) and added to their total income associated with a transaction. Clearly this dynamic is superior to the situation the Clear Channel financing consortium found themselves in, suing the financial sponsors because the sponsors are making money and the banks aren’t.
Merrill would also have an extremely valuable asset in the T.P.G. brand, proven fund raising ability, and long track record–a benefit that other investment banks have pursued but not had much success in achieving, Goldman being the closest to an exception (or perhaps Morgan Stanley in the form of M.S.R.E.F.). Clearly these considerations are extremely similar to the considerations that drove Merrill’s decision to invest in a top brand in money management (Blackrock). Oh, and let’s not forget the alternative asset management platform Merrill will gain access to with T.P.G.-Axon.
So, Mr. Thain, what is my proposal? Well, I’m hardly an expert on structuring these sorts of transactions, but some specific points worth exploring come to mind:
- Merrill should take an equity stake in T.P.G. to align it’s interests with the performance of T.P.G.’s funds.
- Merrill and T.P.G. could form a J.V. where Merrill’s leveraged loan business would, partially or in its entirety, reside. This unit would be responsible for financing buyouts and servicing T.P.G.’s needs. Leveraged finance professionals, leveraged loan trading, and distribution of loans would occur in this unit.
- Merrill and either T.P.G.-Axon or T.P.G. itself (or both) could create an actively managed debt fund to opportunistically purchase corporate loans, real estate loans, etc. Merrill would provide some amount of leverage with T.P.G. using it’s deep relationships to acquire the rest. Some Merrill loans in inventory would seed this venture.
- Merrill would become an adviser to the various T.P.G. funds. I’m not sure if it’s permissible to “lock up” future advisory business, but certainly there would need to be an understanding for a strong preference for Merrill to be included on all advisory work.
- Merrill’s current private equity business, where allowed and not in violation of any agreement (O.M. terms, perhaps), would sell it’s private equity business to T.P.G.
- Merrill and T.P.G. could institute a program for high net worth brokerage/private wealth clients to invest in T.P.G. funds.
Those are just some of the points that could lead to a productive and profitable relationship. This would turn other firms’ weaknesses and conflicts into an opportunity for Merrill. There are, obviously, tons of places where such an arrangement could break down (valuation of businesses, legal constraints, logistical issues, compliance and conflicts, etc.) but innovating the business model of Wall St. is going to set the stage for the next boom, in much the same way firms have failed this time around by, for example, relying on the same distribution-centric business models for new, unproven products. Just a thought.