Entrepreneurial Arbitrage


Arbitrage is “the practice of taking advantage of a price difference between two or more markets: striking a combination of matching deals that capitalize upon the imbalance, the profit being the difference between the market prices.” Once the arbitrage spread closes, the profit is made and the opportunity no longer exists. According to Austrian Economics, entrepreneurs’ profits “derive from the services he performs in detecting and eliminating arbitrage opportunities, thereby allowing supply and demand for a given good to meet.” By recognizing and acting on opportunities, the entrepreneur moves markets toward equilibrium. So entrepreneurial arbitrage is a low-risk way of exploiting gaps between what the market demands and what it’s being supplied until the spread closes.

There is very little “invention” involved—startups imitate or slightly modify someone else’s idea and only introduce breakthrough products or new business models many years later. This is what Peter Drucker calls creative imitation. The technology and market demand already exist, but the creative entrepreneur understands what the innovation represents better than the original innovators. This also includes packaging current technologies into new business models. Paul Graham calls this an idea that’s “a square in the periodic table”—if it didn’t exist now, it would be created shortly.

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Risk Arbitrage 101

Below is the second clip from my 2007 letter to partners. The first post was a case study of Tribune Co., an arbitrage situation we participated in last year.

“Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach him to arbitrage, and he will eat for a lifetime.”Warren Buffett

Risk arbitrage (also called merger arbitrage) is where an investor buys stock in a company that’s expecting to be taken over. The investor’s goal is to profit from the difference in current market price and eventual buyout price. Here’s a simple example: Company A announces that it will acquire Company B for $20 per share. Immediately after the announcement, the share price moves from $15 to $19 per share. The arbitrageur then purchases the stock, hoping to make a $1 profit once the deal is complete.

Why doesn’t Company B just move straight to $20 after the announcement? Why the $1 difference? There are a number of reasons. First, since the merger usually takes some time to complete, part of the $1 represents the “time value” of not receiving the $20 right away. But most of the discrepancy usually represents the market’s uncertainty about the final outcome. The deal may fall through for multiple reasons, such as financing problems, regulatory roadblocks, or the acquirer simply changing their mind. So the risk arbitrageur has two questions to answer: will the deal go through – and if so, how long will it take?

Merger arbitrage is like a simpler, time-constrained version of value investing. When screening for candidates, there’s no need to do valuation work because the value of the company has already been announced. Both arbitrage and value investing involve handicapping the odds and buying assets for less than they are worth. With that in mind, below are some important things to consider when making any arbitrage investment.

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Tribune Co. Case Study

The following is a section from my 2007 letter to partners. It examines the buyout of the Tribune Company, an arbitrage situation we took part in last year. Tomorrow I will post another section that discusses risk arbitrage. (Please note that I have removed some of the non-public information that was included the actual letter). Enjoy!

Zell - TribuneOn April 2, 2007 Tribune Co. announced that Sam Zell prevailed in his bid for the struggling newspaper company. The final $34 per share offer was chosen over another eleventh-hour bid from Los Angeles billionaires Eli Broad and Ron Burkle. Sam “The Grave Dancer” Zell—contrarian real estate magnate—had just completed the sale of Equity Office Properties, his real estate holding company. With the cash he received from the sale (the largest leveraged buyout in history), Zell jumped back into business with his offer for Tribune. The company owns coveted newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. Other assets include a string of TV stations and the Chicago Cubs baseball team.

Under the terms of the agreement, each share of Tribune would eventually be exchanged for $34 in cash. The deal would be subject to shareholder approval and regulatory clearance from the FCC. Sounds simple, right? The end result of the transaction was easy to understand, but the mechanics of the deal were anything but. It was especially unique because the shares would initially be owned not by Zell, but by an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) where Tribune employees would share in the company’s upside.

Immediately after the announcement, the ESOP would purchase $250 million of newly issued stock for $28 a share. Zell’s initial investment consisted of a $200 million promissory note and $50 million in new stock. In May, Tribune would borrow $4.2 billion to finance the purchase of about half of the company from public shareholders.

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