Sunday 16 June 2019

Brexit paralysis and uncertainty puts deal scene under pressure

IBI chief executive Tom Godfrey
IBI chief executive Tom Godfrey
Samantha McCaughren

Samantha McCaughren

Uncertainty has been a word Irish businesses have become all too familiar with since June 2016, when the UK voted to leave the European Union. Pinning down any hard figures on the potential impact of Brexit on Irish companies has been close to impossible, aside from those companies already hit by currency fluctuations.

However, a clearer picture of the effect Brexit is having on growth aspirations and expansion plans is beginning to emerge.

There has been anecdotal evidence that over the past 18 months or so many transactions have been grinding to a halt, a sort of Brexit paralysis for corporate activity.

The term 'Brexit-facing businesses' is often used to describe those judged to be at the coalface of the Brexit fallout. This has particularly focused on companies with food and agri-food businesses.

However, during a due diligence process much deeper questions are asked and many believe the likelihood of a Brexit downside for Irish companies is much more pervasive than generally imagined.

For example, does a business have UK competitors?

At the moment, leaving currency aside, it's a level playing field in terms of tariffs, standards and so on.

But Irish firms will need to ask if their UK competitors will be better or worse off after Brexit?

If competing in the UK, will Irish companies be at a disadvantage?

Irish supply chains are very often heavily dependent on the UK, so what are the risks here? Often there is exposure which might not be obvious at first glance.

Entrepreneurs can be eager for action, hungry to do deals, with the confidence that they can somehow hedge against the unquantifiable Brexit risks.

However, market sources tell me that an appetite to expand and acquire has had to be quelled in many cases with the uncertainty ahead amounting to unacceptable risk in the minds of some advisers.

Wise businesses and their advisers have modelled the various Brexit scenarios, ranging from a benevolent exit to a catastrophic crash out of the UK from the EU.

There would obviously be a range of alternative outcomes in between but for those interested in buying companies, the gulf between valuations in the best and worst scenarios has been far too wide for many buyers to stomach.

The gamble would be huge. And so deals have stalled and acquisition ambitions shelved - for now at least.

Bosses at Ireland's top deal-maker, IBI Corporate Finance, said last week that its deal flow had weathered the Brexit jitters well to date and that few transactions had fallen by the wayside.

It insisted that 'quality businesses' would always find a buyer.

Yet IBI CEO Tom Godfrey and managing director Ted Webb outlined how the firm is shifting its business model to reflect what it called the "clouds on the horizon".

Brexit is chief among them but unfortunately others are gathering.

These include interest rate hikes, the well-anticipated end of the stock market bull run and growing global geopolitical tensions.

With this in mind, they are now targeting early stage businesses in the areas of IT and life sciences, an initiative being led by associate director, James Doody. The hope is that as the businesses scale up, IBI will become their go-to advisers.

But the overall message was stark. Irish megadeals are likely to be few and far between for the foreseeable future.

They believe that smaller deals will continue to happen - no doubt the volume and price tags will depend on what type of Brexit we get and the impact that has on our economy.

Brexit hasn't just hit the outlook for deals activity. Last week AIB indicated that investment plans are also being stalled by the 'uncertainty' factor.

The bank's research found that one-in-three small to medium-sized businesses in the Republic and four out of 10 firms in the North are holding back planned investments because of Brexit.

In light of all this, Irish business has to be commended for how it is dealing with this tremendous uncertainty.

Ireland is at close to full employment and the economy has been in steady growth. While the likes of Facebook gets the headlines, the success of the Irish economy is heavily dependent on smaller indigenous employers.

However, this Brexit paralysis prompts a couple of questions.

Will this lost 18 months or so, when deals have fallen aside and investment has been mothballed, have a negative affect on Ireland's business sector down the line? While it might not be evident now, will Irish companies suffer in the long run due to those missed opportunities?

And what happens if some major international shock - such as a Trumpian trade war - goes on to shake the global economy?

Many Irish companies have done well to thrive in this difficult environment, but how would they weather another negative force?

Unfortunately, it is all too possible that uncertainty will remain a feature of the Irish business lexicon for some time to come.

Sunday Indo Business

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