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The broking Jengameisters

Mark Geoghegan 17 January 2017

The popular block-balancing game Jenga is a great way of instilling an understanding of risk management in young and old alike.

Gameplay is so simple that the rules don't need more than five seconds to be explained and it is also self-evident when the game has come to an end, which solves the eternal problem of sibling arguments.

The object is to build the stack as high as you can before it comes crashing down.

And crash down it must - for the twist in this family favourite is that only blocks removed from the existing stack can be redeployed on the new top floor.

Thus, as the tower edges higher it is steadily undermined from below and becomes ever less stable long before the theoretical maximum height has been reached. The stack runs out of foundations, becomes top-heavy, succumbs to the inevitable and crashes to the ground in a heap.

Then the blocks are reassembled and the whole process starts again. To win you need a steady hand, patience and good touch.

Real life is different, of course, but only slightly so.

Our most Jenga-like sector is to be found in the debt-saturated world of the private equity-owned insurance broker consolidators.

Like their block-stacking brethren, the object of their game is to build the stack higher by growing the business organically and through acquisitions.

The game is won when enough new floors have been added that the property is appreciably taller and greater in scale than it was before, so that it is worth a higher price than the sums the current owner has invested into it.

The purchases are the new blocks piled higher on top of the highest floor, underpinned by the ability to create free cash flow and Ebitda.

Meanwhile, the jeopardy in the game is supplied by the reliance on debt for most of the acquisitions.

Understandably, broker Jenga players are in a hurry to get on with the job.

Time is not on their side because as there are a finite number of broking business owners reaching retirement age in any given year, there are only so many blocks available to be acquired.

As the tower grows deals also have to become ever larger and more audacious to build the stack at the same rate.

Real life differs from the wooden block game in that organic growth produces free blocks to add to the pile, as does the successful integration of new acquisitions into the whole tower. This can give you material with which to shore up your foundations and prevent wobbles.

But make no mistake, this game is high risk - and the higher the stack, the harder it gets to play.

Like a sudden attack of the shakes or an impromptu sneeze, the obvious dangers are an unforeseen stalling or contraction in the growth of Editda and free cash flow or any sudden tightening of credit conditions.

Barring a few wobbles we've had extraordinarily benign and loosening credit conditions for a generation. Despite this, we still saw the spectacular collapse and reassembly of the Towergate broking stack in the UK.

Benign credit conditions can't carry on forever and broking revenues themselves, while solid, should never be taken for granted. We've had a record-breaking run and enterprise value to Ebitda multiples are sky-high.

The stack is nearing theoretical maximum.

Whoever makes the next move will be a brave soul and they will require nerves of steel and an extremely steady hand.

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This article was published as part of issue January 2017/3

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