How did American Capital become a takeover target? The answer lies in the lender’s equity-heavy, low-yielding investment portfolio mix.
Ares Capital, which trades on the Nasdaq under the ticker ARCC, announced on May 23 it would buy American Capital in a $3.4 billion deal, excluding the company’s mortgage management businesses. American Capital trades on the Nasdaq as ACAS.
One of American Capital’s strategies was its trademarked One Stop Buyout, where it could invest in debt ranging from senior to junior, as well as preferred and common stock, acquiring control of an operating company through a transaction.
However, the accumulation of equity did not allow the company to maintain the steady dividend growth that investors had grown to rely on.
In November 2008, the company stopped paying dividends and began evaluating them quarterly to better manage volatile markets. At the same time, American Capital announced an expansion into European middle market investing through the acquisition of European Capital. Also that year, American Capital opened an office in Hong Kong, its first office in Asia.
The news of the dividend policy change triggered a plunge in American Capital shares. Shares have persistently traded below book value since.
At its peak, the One Stop Buyout strategy accounted for 65% of American Capital’s portfolio. It has since slashed this to under 20% of the portfolio, of which less than half of that amount is equity. It continues to sell off assets.
In a reflection of the change in investment mix, S&P Global Ratings placed Ares Capital BBB issuer, senior unsecured, and senior secured credit ratings on CreditWatch negative, as a result of the cash and stock acquisition plan.
“The CreditWatch placement reflects our expectation that the acquisition may weaken the combined company’s pro forma risk profile, with a higher level of equity and structured finance investments,” said S&P Global analyst Trevor Martin in a May 23 research note.
At the same time, S&P Global Ratings placed the BB rating on American Capital on CreditWatch positive after the news.
“The CreditWatch reflects our expectation that ACAS will be merged into higher-rated ARCC upon the completion of the transaction, which we expect to close in the second half of 2016. Also, we expect ACAS’ outstanding debt to be repaid in conjunction with the transaction,” S&P Global analyst Matthew Carroll said in a research note.
Not the first time
But Ares Capital says it has a plan. In 2010, Ares acquired Allied Capital, a BDC which pre-dated the financial crisis. On a conference call at the time of the deal announcement, management said it plans a similar strategy for integrating American Capital, of repositioning lower yielding and non-yielding investments into higher-yielding, directly sourced assets.
Ares Capital managed to increase the weighted average yield of the Allied investment portfolio by over 130 bps in the 18 months after the purchase, and reduce non-accrual investments from over 9% to 2.3% by the end of 2012, Michael Arougheti said in the May 23 investor call. Arougheti is co-chairman of Ares Capital and co-founder of Ares.
“The Allied book was a little bit more challenged, or a lot more challenged, than the ACAS portfolio is today,” Arougheti said. Ares Capital’s non-accrual investments totaled 1.3% on a cost basis, or 0.6% at fair value, as of March 31.
“Remember, that acquisition was made against a much different market backdrop. And so, while the roadmap is going to be very similar… this can be a lot less complicated that that transaction was for us.”
The failings of American Capital’s strategy reached fever pitch last November, when the lender capitulated to pressure from activist investor Elliott Management just a week after it raised an issue with the spin-off plan.
American Capital’s management had proposed in late 2014 spinning off two new BDCs to shareholders, and said it would focus on the business of asset management. However, in May last year, management revised the plan, saying it would spin off just one BDC.
But Elliott Management stepped in, announcing in November that it acquired an 8.4% stake. It later increased its stake further, becoming the largest shareholder of American Capital. The company argued that even the new plan would only serve to entrench poorly performing management, and called for management to withdraw the spin-off proposal.
American Capital listened. Within days, American Capital unveiled a strategic review, including a sale of part or all of the company.
One reason for the about-face was likely its incorporation status in Delaware, which made the board vulnerable to annual election. Incorporation in Maryland, utilized by other BDCs, is considered more favorable to management, in part because the election of boards is often staggered.
Although American Capital had shrunk its investment portfolio in recent quarters, it had participated in the market until recently.
Among recent deals, American Capital helped arrange in November a $170 million loan backing an acquisition of Kele, Inc. by Snow Phipps Group. Antares Capital was agent. In June 2015, American Capital was sole lender and second-lien agent on a $51 million second-lien loan backing an acquisition of Compusearch Software Systems by ABRY Partners. — Abby Latour
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