The $2.15 billion acquisition of Lehman Brothers' (OTC: LEHM.Q) investment management division by Bain Capital and Hellman & Friedman isn't the deal of the year (that would probably be Barclays' (NYSE:BCS) purchase of Lehman's North American broker-dealer business) ... but it's close.

The deal includes the crown jewel of the division, Neuberger Berman, and concludes a process that began weeks ago, as Lehman was struggling to raise capital. Bidders originally included other buyout heavyweights, such as KKR and the Blackstone Group (NYSE:BX).

 $2.15 billion … peanuts, I tell you
Let's put that number in perspective:

  • Before Lehman's Sept. 15 bankruptcy filing, another buyout firm, the Carlyle Group, was willing to buy the investment management unit for $7 billion and give Lehman the option to buy it back.
  • Lehman Brothers paid $3.1 billion for Neuberger Berman alone in 2003. At the time, Neuberger Berman had $64 billion in assets under management (AUM). Since then, Neuberger Berman has more than doubled its AUM to $130 billion. The total for the investment management division is $230 billion.
  • If those first two weren't clear enough, here's another way of looking at it: If you were to pay $2.15 billion for Neuberger Berman alone, you'd be getting a great franchise at a good price -- less than 1.7% of AUM. That's what these buyers are doing, and they're getting all the other parts of investment management, which represent $100 billion in AUM, thrown in for free.

For reference, BlackRock (NYSE:BLK), another marquee asset manager, has a current market value representing 1.8% of its AUM. BlackRock is partly owned by Merrill Lynch (NYSE:MER). Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation Legg Mason (NYSE:LM) is probably a better comparable for Neuberger, but it is currently trading at a distressed valuation of barely 0.6% of AUM.

Bain and Hellman & Friedman got a fantastic price, and that's a good thing (for them, not for Lehman creditors), because they won't be able to count on leverage to juice their returns; the acquisition is a cash transaction.

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In the current environment, the only safety is a great franchise protected by a bulletproof balance sheet. Those are the sort of businesses Philip Durell and his team look for at The Motley Fool's Inside Value investing service. You can find out their most recent picks by taking a 30-day free trial today.

Alex Dumortier, CFA, has no beneficial interest in any of the companies mentioned in this article. Legg Mason is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. The Fool owns shares of Legg Mason. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.