Two recent Chancery Court decisions, Crimson Exploration and KKR Financial, confirm that Delaware takes a flexible and fact-specific approach to determining whether a stockholder is deemed to be “controlling” for purposes of judicial review of a transaction. It is important for dealmakers to understand when the courts may make a determination of control, both to properly craft a defensible process and to understand the prospects for resulting deal litigation.
Posts Tagged ‘David Feirstein’
As confidence in M&A activity seems to have turned a corner, the use of acquirer stock as acquisition currency is a serious consideration for executives and advisers on both sides of the table. A number of factors play into the renewed appeal of stock deals, including an increasingly bullish outlook in the C-level suite and higher and more stable stock market valuations, as well as deal-specific drivers like the need for a meaningful stock component in tax inversion transactions (see recent post on this Forum).
In any transaction facing a meaningful delay between signing and closing, dealmakers on both sides of the table spend a considerable amount of time thinking about allocating the various risks resulting from that delay (e.g., regulatory, business and financing). Most of the discussion centers on “deal certainty,” with sellers focused on contract provisions that force buyers to move quickly through transaction hurdles and obligate them to close despite potentially changed circumstances or unfavorable regulatory demands. In a prior M&A Update that focused on the allocation of antitrust risk, discussed here, we addressed merger agreement terms that outline the required efforts and remedy concessions by buyers, as well as the possible use of a reverse termination fee payable to the seller if the deal terminates because of the failure to obtain required antitrust approvals.
The Delaware courts have often repeated the bedrock principle that there is no one path or blueprint for the board of a target company to fulfill its Revlon duties of seeking the highest value reasonably available in a sale transaction. The courts have usually deferred to the judgment of the directors as to whether the requisite market-check is best achieved by a limited pre-signing process, a full-blown pre-signing auction or a post-signing fiduciary out. However, as evidenced in the recent decision by VC Glasscock in NetSpend, it is equally true that the courts will also not automatically bless a sale process simply because the deal protection provisions fall with- in the range of “market” terms. Especially in a single-bidder sale process, the courts will continue to seek evidence of a fully informed and thoughtful approach by the target board to the sale process and deal protection terms with the goal of maximizing value for shareholders.
Appraisal, or dissenters’, rights, long an M&A afterthought, have recently attracted more attention from deal-makers as a result of a number of largely unrelated factors. By way of brief review, appraisal rights are a statutory remedy available to objecting stockholders in certain extraordinary transactions. While the details vary by state (often meaningfully), in Delaware the most common application is in a cash-out merger (including a back-end merger following a tender offer), where dissenting stockholders can petition the Chancery Court for an independent determination of the “fair value” of their stake as an alternative to accepting the offered deal price. The statute mandates that both the petitioning stockholder and the company comply with strict procedural requirements, and the process is usually expensive (often costing millions) and lengthy (often taking years). At the end of the proceedings, the court will determine the fair value of the subject shares (i.e., only those for which appraisal has been sought), with the awarded amount potentially being lower or higher than the deal price received by the balance of the stockholders.
While deal counsel have always addressed the theoretical applicability of appraisal rights where relevant, a number of developments in recent years have contributed to these rights becoming a potential new frontier in deal risk and litigation:
A record date, often viewed in the merger context as a mere mechanic to be quickly checked off a “to do” list, creates a frozen list of stockholders as of a specified date who are entitled to receive notice of, and to vote at, a stockholders’ meeting. A tactical approach to the timing of the record date can have strategic implications on the prospects for a deal’s success, while the failure to comply with the rules relating to setting a record date could cause a significant delay in holding the vote, leaving the door open for a topping bidder or dissident stockholder to emerge or gather support. As a result, it is important that dealmakers understand the basic mechanics and rules of setting a record date and the tactical repercussions of the record date construct.
Starting first with the legal requirements, there are several key inputs that inform the mechanics of setting a record date, including laws of the company’s state of incorporation, the company’s organizational documents, federal securities laws, rules of the applicable securities exchange and the relevant merger agreement. Taken together, these requirements dictate the necessary procedural and governance steps for setting the record date and establish the minimum and maximum time periods between the record date and the meeting, as well as between the board action setting the record date and the record date itself.
With valuations stabilizing and the M&A market heating up, a rebirth of stock-for-stock deals, after a long period of dominance for all-cash transactions, may be in the offing. If this happens, we expect to see renewed use of the term “merger of equals” (MOE) to describe some of these all-equity combinations. As a starting point, it may be helpful to define what an MOE is and, equally important, what it isn’t. The term itself lacks legal significance or definition, with no requirements to qualify as an MOE and no specific rules and doctrines applicable as a result of the label. Rather, the designation is mostly about market perception (and attempts to shape that perception), with the intent of presenting the deal as a combination of two relatively equal enterprises rather than a takeover of one by the other. That said, MOEs generally share certain common characteristics. First, a significant percentage of the equity of the surviving company will be received by each party’s shareholders. Second, a low or no premium to the pre-announcement price is paid to shareholders of the parties. Finally, there is some meaningful sharing or participation by both parties in “social” aspects of the surviving company.
While each of the aspects of an MOE deal will fall along a continuum of “equality” for the shareholders of each party, there are a handful of key issues that require special attention in an MOE transaction:
The “crown jewel” lock-up, a staple of high-stakes dealmaking technology in the 1980s M&A boom, has been showing some signs of life in the contemporary deal landscape, albeit often in creative new forms. As traditionally conceived, a crown jewel lock-up is an agreement entered into between the target and buyer that gives the buyer an option to acquire key assets of the target (its “crown jewels”) separate and apart from the merger itself. In the event that the merger fails to close, including as a result of a topping bid, the original buyer retains the option to acquire those assets. By agreeing to sell some of the most valuable pieces of the target business to the initial buyer, the traditional crown jewel lock-up can serve as a significant deterrent to competing bidders and, in some circumstances, a poison pill of sorts.
Given the potentially preclusive nature of traditional crown jewel lock-ups, it is not surprising that they did not fare well when challenged in the Delaware courts in the late 1980s. As the Supreme Court opined in the seminal Revlon case, “[W]hile those lock-ups which draw bidders into a battle benefit shareholders, similar measures which end an active auction and foreclose further bidding operate to the shareholders detriment.” Building on the holding in Revlon, the court in Macmillan said that “Even if the lockup is permissible, when it involves ‘crown jewel’ assets careful board scrutiny attends the decision. When the intended effect is to end an active auction, at the very least the independent members of the board must attempt to negotiate alternative bids before granting such a significant concession.” Although crown jewel lock-ups fell out of favor following these rulings, modern and modified versions of the traditional crown jewel lock-up have been finding their way back into the dealmakers’ toolkit.
During the course of negotiations of every public company deal, inevitably the conversation will turn to the amount of the breakup fee payable by a target company to a buyer if the deal is terminated under certain circumstances. Because U.S. corporate law generally requires a target company to retain the ability to consider post-signing superior proposals, a breakup fee is an important element of the suite of deal protection devices (including “no-shop” restrictions, matching rights, etc.) that an initial buyer implements to seek to protect its position as the favored suitor. Speaking broadly, a breakup fee will increase the cost to a topping bidder as it will also need to cover the expense of the fee payable to the first buyer. However, with respect to deal protection terms in general, as well as the amount of breakup fees in particular, courts have indicated that they cannot be so tight or so large as to be preclusive of a true superior proposal. Starting from this somewhat ambiguous principle, the negotiations therefore turn to the appropriate amount for the breakup fee given the particular circumstances of the deal at hand.
Whether or not to acquire a minority or “toehold” stake in a public company as a preliminary step towards a future business combination has been the subject of tactical debate for many years. Proponents argue that a toehold can be used by a potential bidder to convey its serious intent or, if necessary, as a platform to quietly or publicly put the target in play. In addition, the position could advantage a buyer in a subsequent sale process by reducing its average cost (by acquiring shares before a deal premium attaches) or acquiring a meaningful voting position in the target; at the very least, the profit on the toehold that the acquirer can collect if another buyer succeeds with a higher bid may cover, or exceed, the costs the acquirer incurs in pursuing the target. On the flip side, demurrers point out the risk of being perceived as employing strong-arm tactics when a velvet glove approach is more likely to win over the “hearts and minds” of the target. Moreover, many a target board may reflexively react in an unduly defensive manner, for example by enacting a poison pill, complicating an attempt to reach a negotiated outcome at a desirable price.
The debate has recently sharpened with comments from at least one Delaware judge who has taken the view that the failure to acquire a stake before approaching a target conveys a lack of seriousness about making a potential bid and is evidence of being a “stupid acquirer.” A small stake (even as little as 100 shares) in a potential target represents a low-cost option for better positioning the acquirer in the event of litigation if a sale process does not unfold in the way the buyer would like (e.g., the target board refuses to engage with the buyer or agrees to a sale to another buyer). Only by owning a stake will the buyer have “standing” as a shareholder of the target to bring legal claims against the target or its board, a need that may not become apparent until it is too late to rectify.