Dell and Best Buy: Tough Takeover Trades

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) - By next holiday season, you could be shopping at Best Buy ( BBY) for a Dell ( DELL), Hewlett Packard ( HPQ) or Research In Motion ( RIMM) piece of hardware and all four companies could be in the hands of a private equity owner.

In a past age, the likes of Dell, RIM or HP might have drawn speculation of a mega-consolidation. Think HP's $25 billion 2001 deal for Compaq or Microsoft's ( MSFT) unsuccessful play for Yahoo! ( YHOO). Now, it's private equity that feeds the tech sector M&A rumor mill, with speculation rampant that struggling PC-exposed former blue chips might be take out targets given their bargain basement stock prices.

Such is the state of the ultracompetitive tech sector and a private equity industry flush with cash and financing, but still hesitant to cut mega buyout deals.

You can always hope and speculate.

But investors trying to piece together the outcome of such speculation face a particularly uncertain outcome, especially given the relentless market share struggles of the likes of Dell and HP and the liquidity issues of Best Buy and Research In Motion.

Contrast the tech sector M&A rumor mill to that of telecoms at this time last year and its easy to see why the former may be a tougher guess for investors.

While investors owning shares in telecom sector "also ran's" such as Sprint ( S), MetroPCS ( PCS) and Clearwire ( CLWR) faced uncertainty on whether a value saving merger could be cut in 2012, there was an obvious set of potential strategic acquirers with cash and shares to make a M&A trade a decent gamble.

In the tech sector, an abundance of rumored private equity buyers and lack of strategic interest is a far more complicated speculation.

After Best Buy's co-founder Richard Schulze floated a $24 to $26 a share takeout 'proposal' of the struggling electronics retailer in mid-2012, a Monday report by Bloomberg News suggests Dell may be taken private, in a rumor that breaks new ground on the size of a deal private equity buyers might try to cut in the wake of the financial crisis.

Investors would do well to recount Best Buy's half-year march to a buyout before getting too excited about Dell's takeover prospects.

A recent stabilization in Best Buy's holiday season sales helped the company's buyout prospects ahead of a February 2013 deadline on Schulze's 'proposal' to take the Minnesota-based company private.

Even if Schulze finally decides to ante up with a formal offer for Best Buy, investors playing the company's takeout aren't likely to see a gain. Best Buy shares trade over 40% below the high end of Schulze's buyout proposal.

By year end, Best Buy, Dell or pieces of Hewlett Packard could very well end up in the hands of a private equity owner. Guessing how, when or if such a deal would occur is much more likely a money losing proposition than a similar telecom trade from 2012.

For the ordinary investor, playing the eventual takeout of a company like Best Buy or Dell is a risky game given the limited resources of the private equity industry and a plethora for former blue chip tech stocks that are now rumored to be in buyout negotiations.

In the case of Dell, those assessing the takeout value of the third leading PC maker see limited upside from current share prices, which already appear to test the limits of what a private equity firm may be able to handle.

Earlier in January, Bernstein Research analyst Toni Sacconaghi gave the PC-maker a sum of the parts value of $12 a share - roughly in line with current share prices.

Sacconaghi, noted that both Dell and HP being valued at their breakup value by some investors given a bleak outlook for a PC market turnaround. HP's individual assets, the analyst calculated, are worth $29 a share, in an analysis that gives investors a better chance at a return.

-- Written by Antoine Gara in New York