Ready to plunk down some money with a private equity firm? If you are an accredited high net worth investor with at least $1 million to risk with the firm on whatever their latest deal is, you have many quality outfits to choose from.
But if you're not in "the 1%," there is another path. Many private equity (PE) firms are also public companies, including Blackstone Group ( BX – Analyst Report ) and the infamous KKR. As an industry group, together with traditional investment management firms like BlackRock ( BLK – Analyst Report ) and Franklin Resources (BEN), the PE "alternative" asset managers currently rank in the top 10% of Zacks Industries.
Today we are going to focus on the remarkable Apollo Global Management, L.P. ( APO – Snapshot Report ) , a $3 billion company which grew its total assets under management (AUM) in 2012 from $75 billion to $113 billion.
What's so remarkable about Apollo? Three things stand out right away.
1) Earnings Surprise After Surprise
Apollo operates in three business segments: private equity, capital markets and real estate. It raises, invests and manages funds on behalf of pension and endowment funds, as well as other institutional and individual investors.
After a rough year following its March 2011 IPO, the firm started firing on all rockets, boosting fourth-quarter GAAP earnings an astronomical 1,564% higher than a year earlier. And this represented a 120% surprise over analyst expectations.
And it gets better: for the last four quarters, Apollo has beat consensus EPS estimates by an average of 99%. Granted, PE earnings can be volatile as big investments and turn-arounds can take many quarters to develop leaving dry patches in between.
But if it's one thing Apollo has shown consistently in the past year it is their ability to deliver new profits from their investing harvests as they continue to find attractive deal values. And this explains the 60% rise in share price in the past six months.
2) A Valuation to Envy
Below is a timeline of annual earnings estimates plotted against price since the firm's IPO. 2013 estimates are clearly going in the right direction — up and to the right — with first quarter results due next month lifted from $0.71 to $1.18 since their Q4 report in February.
Full year 2013 estimates got a lift to $3.22 from $2.85. And at Tuesday's close of $23.55, that puts Apollo trading below 8 times on a forward basis — even after the incredible 60%+ rally. The slower rising slope of 2014 estimates is likely due to the perceived volatility of private equity earnings going out that far.
3) Moon-Shot Dividend
Apollo really likes giving cash to shareholders when the going is good. After their announced fourth quarter earnings, the company boosted its quarterly dividend 162% to $1.05 per share. While Apollo's dividend varies every quarter based on earnings, if it maintains its $1.05 distribution, then it would have an effective dividend yield of 19%, way above the industry norm.
For PE and other alternative asset management firms, it's all about raising and deploying capital in diverse markets. Apollo also specializes in distressed debt and recently launched a $300 million partnership to invest in coal mining properties.
Keeping the "alt" in alternative investments helps them generate returns outside of traditional LBO deals which are becoming more competitive (think DELL).
Besides intense competition for deals, another factor pushing up deal values lately has been persistently low interest rates. Speaking at the SuperReturn conference in Berlin recently, Apollo CEO Leon Black said the average price for private equity deals in the U.S. is 9 times EBITDA.
One of the major assumptions resulting from such high valuations is that interest rates will continue to be soft over the next five years, he said. However, Apollo has managed to strike deals at lower valuations, around 6 times EBITDA.
This has primarily happened by acquiring corporate "hive-offs" or businesses being offered for sale by a parent company, like the company's recent purchase of McGraw-Hill's education segment.
Alternatives to Cash are King
Another factor pushing up the cost of deals is that private equity companies are flush with funds. According to research firm Preqin, private equity buyout funds focusing on North America collectively held idle capital to the tune of $189.4 billion as of Jan 2013.
This is just 12% lower than the amount in December 2011. So, a large volume of capital has piled up, which private equity either has to utilize optimally or return to investors. Right now, Apollo is choosing to hang on to their war chest and reward shareholders with a chunky dividend.
This appears to display management's continued confidence in their ability to find good deals around the world while money is cheap. One might wonder if all this cash forces PE firms to the edge of the risk envelope.
Since the headier days of LBO transactions, fund managers today are now seeking out companies with a high intrinsic value, before even attempting to turn them around. Such a strategy is aimed at launching a second IPO, the most lucrative outcome of a private equity deal.
Therefore, deals are evaluated with an increasing focus on operational feasibility. This is why propositions such as Best Buy are viewed with skepticism by fund managers. The major concern in this case is that the company operates in a dying industry and a turnaround would be highly risky.
It's not that the entire industry has reoriented itself towards a low risk, conservative approach. Speaking at the SuperReturn conference, Howard Marks, Chairman of Oaktree Capital, said the slow recovery in both Europe and the U.S. has meant investors are moving towards riskier propositions in the quest for higher returns. Marks said the ratio of debt on leveraged buyouts is moving back up towards "pre-crisis highs."
So where does that leave the self-directed investor seeking diversification and yield?
Given the optimism among analysts for the coming quarters — which gave Apollo a Zacks #1 Rank — plus the company's valuation and stellar dividend, investors interested in a managed approach to the risky world of private equity should have APO on their buy list for Q2.
Kevin Cook is a Senior Stock Strategist with Zacks.com
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