Political Theatre & Deals

Last week Michigan Senator Carl Levin, Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Permanent Investigations, brought Goldman Sachs’ (GS) Chairman and CEO Lloyd Blankfein and a number of his colleagues to Washington, D.C. to hold a hearing on the fabled Abacus derivative deal. The cast from the Goldman side included Fabrice Tourre — Tourre is also known as “Fabulous Fab” in the press — who structured the transaction with input from John Paulson. (Paulson is no relation to Hank Paulson, the former Treasury Secretary in the Bush administration and Blankfein’s predecessor at Goldman Sachs. John Paulson is the founder of the hedge fund Paulson & Co.) The 11 hours of hearings provided countless news clips on broadcast newscasts and across numerous websites, along with cute headlines for the tabloid press. In the end it amounted to political theatre, with the Goldman Sachs team, led by Blankfein, vigorously defending their transactions. While many of us may prefer the old image of the sage investment banker providing advice and counsel to their clients, it is clear that the current leadership team at Goldman Sachs is led by former traders that view deals that have counter-parties as the normal course of business.

In the end I find myself joining with former President Bill Clinton and the Sage of Omaha, Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA). Speaking at a conference on April 28th, Bill Clinton raised the question: did the Abacus transaction break any law? Clinton did this in the context of the current civil suit against Goldman Sachs and the possibility that had been raised of criminal charges. (CNN: April 28, 2010) Buffett came to the staunch defense of both Goldman Sachs and Lloyd Blankfein at Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholders event in Omaha, Nebraska over the weekend. While the press and hearings have provided political theatre, it has not gotten us any closer to a solution on how to avoid another subprime mortgage debacle in the future.

The primary focus of this blog has always been to offer my perspective on specific deals and the overall deal climate in the B2B space. However, the events of the past year required most of my commentary to focus on the terrible economic climate we found ourselves in, with very few significant deals taking place. Yesterday, before the market opened, Pearson (PSON.LN) announced that they were selling their stake in Interactive Data Corporation (IDC) to two private equity firms. Pearson had stated in mid-January that they were exploring strategic options for IDC, a financial market data provider in which they hold a controlling interest of 61 percent. Silver Lake & Warburg Pincus will be paying $33.86 per share, which represents a 33% premium over IDC’s January 14 share price, which is the day before they announced their strategic review. (WSJ: May 4, 2010) When a financial services firm is once again in demand, it’s clear that the deal climate has improved dramatically.

Another such deal is Salesforce.com’s (CRM) announcement on April 21st of a definitive agreement to acquire Jigsaw Data, the cloud-based data services company in Silicon Valley. Jigsaw was backed by El Dorado Ventures, Norwest Ventures and Austin Ventures. I am pleased to note that I had the privilege of serving on the Jigsaw Board over the past 3 years and working closely with the other board members and Jim Fowler, the founder of Jigsaw. Together with Jigsaw senior vice president and COO Kevin Akeroyd, Jim built a compelling crowd-sourced data company that grew significantly right through the Great Recession and exceeded every growth metric the board established. I cannot think of a better outcome than Jigsaw joining Salesforce.com. This acquisition was exceptional for all involved and I applaud the entrepreneurship displayed by the Jigsaw team.

Mary Claire and I are off to London next week and I trust that I will have some special insights to share with you on tomorrow’s U.K. election upon my return.