RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — Is Monday’s blockbuster $720 million or more deal for LendingTree a home run for Barry Diller and USA Interactive, his growing online empire?
Will the deal be the home run for the intrepid Charlotte-based founder Doug Lebda and his management team, which have made the company name a “dot com” success story?
Initial reaction on the street was amazingly strong. LendingTree shares soared $6.03, or 41 percent, Monday to close at $20.72. The stock’s value basically has tripled in value in recent months, driving upward by soaring sales and something called profits as low interest rates propelled home refinancings, new home sales and home equity loans.
Several skeptics came out against the deal. That’s to be expected. How many other “dot com” stock deals have tanked before? Institutional memory about the tech and Internet balloon remains strong, as it should.
But in all the talk Monday, few if any people also talked about LendingTree’s forays into additional business — such as consumer loans, car loans and so forth. It’s obvious Lebda doesn’t want to rely just on brokering home loans and getting fees as a result.
Also, how much more business might be brought LendingTree’s way with the full weight of the Diller empire behind it as opposed to running ads on their own nickel?
Local Tech Wire thought it would be interesting to take a look at how the principals involved put their spin on the deal in a conference call and then take a look at how some analysts reacted.
Will there be changes at LendingTree?
“We do not intend to change the LendingTree culture” – Diller, in conference call. He was referring to Lebda and Tom Reddin, LendingTree’s president and chief operating officer. Diller said other senior staff also will be retained.
Why do the deal?
“For us, financial services and real estate are not only huge, but these areas are about as rich as they come for online migration.” — Diller, in conference call.
“Barry Diller wants to help you find a date, through Match.com. He will find you a show, through Ticketmaster. If things work out, he will help you book your honeymoon, through Expedia. Now he wants to help you buy a house.” – Saul Hansell, New York Times.
Will an increase in interest rates from decades low figures hurt future business?
“As the refinance volume is very high, our mortgage lenders have not needed us, because their traditional channels have been booming. But as interest rates rise and refinancings fall off, lenders come onto our exchange and our close rates go up.” — Lebda, from conference all.
“We’re buying this for the long term prospects. We couldn’t care less what happens in the very near term. We care about whether we’ve bought the right business. — For us, financial services and real estate are not only huge, but these areas are about as rich as they come for online migration.” — Diller, in conference call.
Is USA Interactive buying at the wrong time — at the height of refinancing and new sales?
“People said the same thing when we got into Expedia right after 9/1 — when we bought Hotels.com it was a $60-million business, and now it has $1 billion in sales.” — Diller, as quoted by Forbes.
Real estate and loans are “local, local, local” even online?
“We can bridge the gap so consumers feel that we are connected locally, not just through the Internet,” Lebda during conference call, as quoted by Dow Jones, citing USA’s Citysearch local online directory.
Should stockholders stay or cash out?
“LendingTree shareholders – including me – may wonder whether to hold or sell on account of the merger. — I love the businesses the company owns and is buying, but the valuation assumes just too much growth and alleged synergy. Further research may just confirm my current view that I have better post-merger places for my money.” – Tom Jacobs, Motley Fool
Is the deal a good one?
“USA Interactive has talked for some time about adding another leg – financial services – to their business. And LendingTree is the most obvious candidate. It’s a huge market and you don’t need huge market share gains for the business to grow nicely.”… Analyst Safa Rashtchy, US Bancorp Piper Jaffary, as quoted by Reuters.
Is anyone skeptical?
“There’s definitely going to be some skepticism and there should be. For USAI, it’s not going to be a big contributor to their numbers, so they have the luxury to feel it out. I agree with the case they (USA Interactive) made that when rates go up and the market is more difficult, suppliers and underwriters will need to turn more to LendingTree.” — Analyst Peter Mirsky, Fahnestock & Co., as quoted by The Associated Press.
And what happening to changing paradigms?
“The Internet, of course, was supposed to eliminate the middleman. But Barry Diller has been building a tidy business for himself by ignoring that prevalent – and, in hindsight, mistaken – wisdom since the dawn of the commercial Internet. ” — George Mannes, The Street.com, citing LendingTree, TicketMaster, Match.com and Hotels.com.
“This transaction is totally consistent with everything we’re about. We are a fee-based business operating in the middle.” – USA Vice Chairman Victor Kaufman in conference call, as quoted by Mannes.
LendingTree shareholders still have to approve the deal, but that seems to be a slam dunk, given the endorsement from Lebda and management.
Is the deal a good one for LendingTree, its stockholders and Charlotte? Stay tuned.
Rick Smith is managing editor of Local Tech Wire.