Sam Zell Called a Top, Will Steve Schwarzman Do the Same with Blackstone?

What does this Blackstone Group (BX) IPO mean? That seems to be a question that everyone is trying to answer. There is no doubt that monumental events, such as Blackstone Group becoming the first private equity firm to go against its own culture and issue stock to the public, deserve to be analyzed on Wall Street. That does not mean this IPO has to mark the end of something, whether it be the boom in private equity led leveraged buyouts, mergers and acquisitions, or even the overall equity market. Still, there is evidence that sometimes these game-changing events can signal something.

Consider an example. Earlier this year Sam Zell, a brilliant contrarian investor and businessman, sold his crown jewel, commercial real estate giant Equity Office Properties (EOP). The sale of EOP signaled to many that Zell thought the price he could get was so large that he had to cash out given the huge bull market for commercial real estate. There would be no other reason for Zell to sell after all these years. It appeared that the market forced his hand and he quickly moved on to Tribune (TRB), a company at the opposite end of the exuberance spectrum.

What is amazing is how well Zell timed his exit from EOP. As you can see from the chart below, the iShares U.S. Real Estate Fund (IYR), an exchange traded fund serving as a benchmark for publicly traded REITs, peaked on February 2, 2007. The index has fallen sharply (17 percent) in the five months since. Now get this, shareholders of EOP voted to approve the sale of the company on that very same day, February 2nd. And who bought EOP in a deal valued at more than $39 billion including assumed debt? Steve Schwarzman’s Blackstone Group.

Things like that (it’s not the first time this has happened) are exactly why people are trying to figure out what to gleam, if anything, from the Blackstone IPO. From my perspective, I think it says something about the global boom in M&A activity, but not necessarily the broad equity market. I think the market on the whole is tied to the economy more than anything else, of which private equity is tiny sliver. More likely, Blackstone decided to go public because they thought their firm would receive a peak valuation right now, both because PE firms are in high demand and because profit levels are through the roof due to immense deal volumes.

As we have seen in recent weeks, even a small increase in interest rates can startle investors. As soon as borrowing costs go up, it becomes much harder to issue debt to buy equity, which is exactly the mechanism that is fueling most of this private equity boom. It doesn’t matter if a 5.5% or 6.0% ten year bond rate is still pretty low in historical terms. It’s not 4.5% and therefore deals will be harder to complete. Fewer deals mean less money for the likes of Blackstone.

It will be interesting to monitor how the M&A market unfolds in the near to intermediate term. Worldwide M&A deal volume in 2006 rose 38 percent to $3.8 trillion, shattering the previous record of $3.4 trillion set in 2000. The first quarter showed year-over-year growth, so 2007 is on pace for another record. It would not be surprising, especially given the eerie coincidence of the aforementioned sale of Equity Office Properties, if we are near the peak in M&A. If that is the case, it will be yet another reason why people are so quick to postulate what something like a Blackstone IPO really means for investors.

Full Disclosure: No positions in the companies mentioned