Financial Engineering Wildest Since The 2007 Bubble

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Financial engineering had a glorious year in 2013. The last time we had this much crazy fun had been in 2007. Back then, Merger Mondays were hot on CNBC. Deals, no matter how large and how insanely leveraged, were announced with great hoopla. Rational people were seen shaking their heads at incongruous moments. Stocks were defying gravity. That was the last time we had this much fun because the bubble collapsed, and some of its detritus was skillfully heaped on the Fed’s balance sheet or on the taxpayer’s shoulders.

But now finally, after five years, the crazy fun is back, and the good thing is: this time, it’s different. This time, the smart money is selling!

In total, 229 IPOs were priced in the US in 2013, up 58% from last year, raising $61.3 billion, the highest amount since 2007, according to Dealogic. Stocks of companies that went public this year saw their prices soar on average 61.6%, compared to the already dizzying 38% of the Russell 2000 Growth index and the 27% of the S&P 500 (Renaissance Capital, chart).

In terms of dollars raised – not hype generated – the largest deal was Houston-based pipeline outfit Plains GP Holdings LP, which raised $2.9 billion in October. Who was selling? The smart money! Among them, Occidental Petroleum, The Energy and Minerals Group, Kayne Anderson Capital Advisors, and of course the smartest of them all, the executives.

Hilton’s IPO, which raised $2.7 billion in December, was in second place. Blackstone had taken Hilton private during the LBO frenzy in 2007 in a mind-bendingly leveraged deal for $26.7 billion, including debt.

Pfizer unloaded animal-medicine subsidiary Zoetis in January, raising $2.2 billion. In fourth place, finally a Silicon Valley hero, and certainly number one in hype, Twitter. It still hasn’t figured out how to make money, but it raised 2.1 billion. Natural gas driller Antero Resources, controlled by Warburg Pincus, raised $1.8 billion.

It was a huge year for IPOs. We knew it would be. We’ve been informed. “We’re selling everything that’s not nailed down,” explained Leon Black, CEO of private equity giant Apollo Global Management back in April. The smart money has been busy doing that. And not just through IPOs….

Global junk-bond issuance rose 12% from last year, to an all-time high of $477 billion. It was powered by veritable frenzy in Europe where deal volume surged 54% to $122 billion. In the US, the taper tantrum over the summer caused junk bonds to dive, a harbinger for things to come when the Fed actually stops buying bonds, rather than just talk about it. In May, it still looked like a record year. But with turmoil rippling across that space over the summer, volume for the year dropped 6% to 260 billion, from last year’s all time high of $275 billion.

Who made the big bickies, as my friends from down under might say? Card-carrying financial engineers. In the US, investment banking fees rose 12% to $36 billion, about matching the previous record set during the bubble of 2007. In Europe, fees rose 10% to 18 billion.

But there was a fly in the ointment. Asia Pacific had its worst year since the crisis of 2008. That includes Japan despite its money-printing binge whose magnitude trumped anything that even the Fed in its reckless splendor has dared to do. While M&A dollar volume rose 11% due to some large deals in China, activity fell 12% to the lowest number of deals since 2006. Volume in the debt capital markets plunged 15%.

There was another problem in Asia: competition. Banks that had piled into the space competed ferociously, which put downward pressure on fees. So, investment banking revenues dropped 10% to $11.7 billion – a grizzly 26% below the peak year of 2010.

Despite the debacle in Asia, global investment banking fees rose to $73 billion. And that too was the highest since the bubble year 2007, when investment banks pocketed $90 billion. Think of how much more fun could have been had if Asia hadn’t dilly-dallied around.

And who got the lion’s share of these fees? JP Morgan gobbled up 8.6% globally and Bank of America Merrill Lynch 7.5%. They were followed by Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and Citigroup. For the first time since 2009, the global top five were our too-big-to-fail friends on Wall Street. The top ten were rounded out by Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse, Barclays, Wells Fargo, and UBS.

They’re all celebrating their phenomenal success in extracting massive fees from a wheezing economy that has been barely wobbling along. But it’s also a warning signal: Financial engineering looks good on paper for a while, and the markets love it, and the hoopla makes everyone feel energized, especially those who take the cream off the top, and it feeds off the nearly free money the Feds hands to Wall Street. But after these financial engineers are done extracting fees and altering the landscape, they move on, leaving behind iffy debt, shares of dubious value, wildly growing tangles of risk, and other detritus. And a lot of these financially over-engineered constructs won’t make it in an environment where money isn’t free anymore.

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