San Francisco, August, 2015
The China Syndrome – The Black Swan Pushes Events to the Tipping Point-Maximizing Enterprise Value in the upcoming Crisis
This article has been updated to reflect the present “China Syndrome” and as it relates to the “Black Swan & Tipping Point”. Parts of this article were published by Steven R. Gerbsman and Robert Tillman in May, 2007. To understand the future, one must understand the past and that history is a guide.
Please read, enjoy and “BE PREPARED”.
Steven R. Gerbsman, Gerbsman Partners and Robert Tillman, member of Gerbsman Partners Board of Intellectual Capital
The events in China of the past two weeks have illustrated how completely integrated are the world’s economies. We know that stresses are building in the world and we all see these stresses and imbalances. Based on history, we know that there will be violent and completely unpredictable resets. Nevertheless, we simply cannot predict the specific triggering events or the timing or the exact nature of such resets. As prudent business people, how do we prepare? Two books describe the process of change and our own experience suggests numerous preparatory measures that can be used to anticipate and to manage the unexpected. We have currently experienced one of the best economic times in our country’s history. The stock market, although recently volatile, is at all time highs, unemployment appears to be stabilizing, interest rates are low, money is plentiful and deal valuations are high and getting higher. There are, of course, many worrisome trends: terrorism, excessive government spending, trade deficits, high oil prices, immigration and over the longer term, such issues as an aging population and (possibly) global warming. Although problems and worries always exist, in historical terms, times are reasonably good.
The big questions for us as specialists in maximizing enterprise value are:
Will it end?
Yes. Of course. Even fundamentally healthy economies experience frequent and often violent corrections. The current world economy has evolved in many ways over the past decade. All large businesses are international. The primary economies of the world are very tightly linked together. Money is far more liquid and moves around the world with far less “friction” than it did in the past. The pace of technical change continues to increase. Nevertheless, we do not believe that the laws of history, and especially, the laws of human nature, have been repealed.
As always, “The more things change, the more that they remain the same.”
When will it end?
Unfortunately, no one knows the answer to this question. In historical terms, the current economic expansion has continued for a very long time and has survived numerous shocks, including war, a doubling of energy prices and now significant pressure on energy pricing, natural disasters, localized economic downturns, such as the bursting of the sub-prime mortgage bubble and the challenge of Iran, Russia and the Middle East. At this point in time, it appears to be “ripe” for a downturn. On the other hand, inherently unstable situations often persist for far longer than anyone could believe possible. During the 2000 Internet bubble, it seemed to us for quite some that the old rules of business no longer applied and that 25 year-old CEOs knew something us old guys did not know. When the crash occurred, we were relieved to find out that we were not so obsolete after all.
We did, however, underestimate the staying power of technically insolvent companies with broken or non-existent business models. Many of these companies had significant cash on the balance sheet (offset, of course, by significant liabilities) and investors who continued to infuse more cash far beyond the point of reason. Today, there exist immense pools of uncommitted cash, much of it in the hands of entities, such as private equity funds and hedge funds that are subject to minimal regulatory scrutiny and whose operations are obscured from the public view. In addition, the volatility of the dollar against both the Euro and the Pound Sterling makes U.S. assets potentially more expensive and foreign products cheaper. These factors tend to potentially mitigate against an economic downturn. For how much longer they will continue to do so we do not know (and if we did know, we would certainly would not tell).
How will it end?
Fast, hard and unexpectedly. Two recent books shed a great deal of light on the process:
The first book, The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell describes how human behavior causes events to cascade rapidly once a certain critical mass (the “Tipping Point”) has been achieved. Examples in the business world include periodic economic ?panics? and the spread of certain technologies and products, such as personal computers, iPods, cell phones, etc. It is very difficult to predict in advance when the ?tipping point? in any situation will be reached, but history has shown that, once it has been reached, events proceed very quickly.
The second book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes how highly improbable, and hence unpredictable, events periodically create massive change. The title of the book derives from the observation that the existence of even a single black swan disproves the assertion that all swans are white. Historical examples include the Fall of France at the beginning of World War II, the rise of the Internet and 9/11.
There are many obvious candidates for a “black swan” event that pushes the world economy over “the tipping point” into a downturn – a war with Iran, a nuclear terrorist attack or a worldwide bird flu or small pox epidemic, but generally, it is what you do not see that gets you. We are fundamentally optimists about the long-term prospects of the world economy. In many highly measurable ways, the world really is improving, driven by technological innovation, a lowering of barriers to trade and increasing economic integration. Nevertheless, we are old enough to have lived through many “bumps” along the road and know that such discontinuities will always occur. We believe that we will see a significant economic event sometime over the next 12-18 months, either localized to a particular sector or geographic region or globally.
Before such an event occurs:
As a board member, investor or stakeholder:
- Implement tight cash flow, receivables and inventory reporting so that you are alerted to problems early.
- Focus on the control, preservation and forecasting of CASH on a weekly, monthly and quarterly basis.
- Require “bottoms up” forecasting for all aspects of revenue and expense. Have the CEO and CFO defend ALL numbers.
- Hold the CEO responsible and accountable for Performance. If you are off the business plan/forecast, re-forecast based on the reality of “what is” today.
- Communicate frequently with all parties at interest. Check that the CEO is providing leadership, motivation and morale to the management team and employees.
- Review all companies in your portfolio. Identify and define action plans to fix weaknesses now.
- Utilize professional resources to assist in maximizing enterprise value, when appropriate.
When such an event occurs:
- Face up to reality and act quickly. When things are going bad, waiting seldom improves them. We have never seen a board of directors act too quickly when faced with a crisis. We have all too frequently seen a board act slowly or not at all.
- Call for assistance early. The earlier professionals can get involved in the process, the better the potential outcome in maximizing enterprise value. Many times boards request assistance only after a company has run out of cash. Many more options exist to maximize enterprise value if a company has some running room.
About Gerbsman Partners
Gerbsman Partners focuses on maximizing enterprise value for stakeholders and shareholders in under-performing, under-capitalized and under-valued companies and their Intellectual Property. Since 2001, Gerbsman Partners has been involved in maximizing value for 89 technology, medical device, life science, digital marketing/social commerce, cyber and data security, media and solar companies and their Intellectual Property and has restructured/terminated over $810 million of real estate executory contracts and equipment lease/sub-debt obligations. Since inception, Gerbsman Partners has been involved in over $ 2.3 billion of financings, restructurings and M&A transactions.
Gerbsman Partners has offices and strategic alliances in San Francisco, New York, Boston, Orange County, VA/DC, Europe and Israel.