Thursday, November 16, 2006

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Why do foreigners overpay for US brands?

Daniel Gross asks this question in Slate with regard to foreign purchases of American conumer companies in the U.S. His answer:

It's not that dim foreign owners are screwing up the healthy American brands they acquire. Rather, they are buying brands that are already on a downward trajectory. To foreigners, these companies may seem like iconic, big brands. IBM did invent the PC. Reebok is a pioneer in fitness. And Pier 1 is the biggest independent home furnishings chain—as of February 2006, it had more than 1,100 stores in the United States (plus 43 Pier 1 Kids stores) and $1.78 billion in annual sales. Foreign companies like these brands not because they're global icons, although Reebok and IBM have international presences, but because of their domestic cachet. It would take immense sums of money to build such brands in the United States from scratch....

But iconic American brands only tend to come up for sale when they're damaged. IBM may have invented the PC in 1981. But by 2005, its parent regarded PCs as a low-margin business, one in which it didn't want to compete with Dell and HP. Reebok was facing tough competition from much-larger companies such as Nike and Adidas in the trendy footwear and athletic-apparel business. Pier 1 has simply been unable to compete with Target, Wal-Mart, and Lowe's.

Foreign buyers tend to get a look at such brands only after legions of domestic buyers have passed. The U.S. has an extremely lively market for corporate control—publicly held companies, activist shareholders such as Carl Icahn, private equity funds such as the Blackstone Group, and hedge funds spend their days and nights seeking takeover candidates. Any time an asset with any trace of value comes on the market, it inspires a frenzy of due diligence and meetings. With their deep pockets and willingness to use leverage, these players rarely get outbid. For six months, U.S. investors have had an opportunity to check out the aisles of Pier 1. None found it worthy of purchase.

So, it's no surprise foreign buyers of iconic companies find themselves losing dollars and customers. They've generally had to overpay for a damaged brand. The short-term prospects for these deals do indeed look grim. Anybody expecting Pier 1's fortune to revive quickly is hopelessly optimistic. For Jacobsen and other foreign investors, the opportunity lies in a tactic American financiers and entrepreneurs have pioneered: turning around castoff broken-down companies that have a viable core business. But those turnarounds don't happen quickly, and sometimes they don't happen at all.

Of course, sometimes American companies overpay for foreign assets too.

posted by Dan on 11.16.06 at 01:08 PM


Maybe they are just value shoppers interested in the long term and too smart to pay for those already peaking.

posted by: Lord on 11.16.06 at 01:08 PM [permalink]

Do foreign acquirers overpay by more than domestic acquirers?

The history of companies buying other companies isn't exactly a record of brilliancy. In fact, acquisitions are, on the whole, losing propositions for the acquirer. Just look at the stock market reaction to an announcement.

posted by: Bernard Yomtov on 11.16.06 at 01:08 PM [permalink]

Oh yeah, wow. GE Finance buying Marubeni at 80 yen to the dollar....

posted by: grumpy realist on 11.16.06 at 01:08 PM [permalink]

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