This is the ninth article in a series on buy-side considerations. In this series, we will cover buy-side topics from the perspective of middle-market companies looking to enter the acquisition market. If you wish to read the rest of the series, click here.

With the potential rise of corporate bankruptcies, if the U.S. enters a sufficiently deep recession next year, debt funded acquisitions and dividend recap transactions that were common the past couple of years after rates plunged may be subject to intense scrutiny. Of course, if there is no recession or only a shallow recession, then these musings may be premature.

Nonetheless, acquirers who anticipate levering a target’s capital structure and owners who are contemplating a dividend recap should be familiar with solvency opinions and the concept of fraudulent conveyance, concepts that were litigated in the 2020 bankruptcy of Neiman Marcus.


Neiman Marcus: A Restructuring Case Study

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What Is a Solvency Opinion?

The Business Judgement Rule, an English case law doctrine followed in the US and Canada, provides directors with great latitude in running the affairs of a corporation provided directors do not breach their fiduciary duties to act in good faith, loyalty and due care. However, there are instances when state law prohibits certain actions including the fraudulent transfer of assets to stockholders that would leave a company insolvent.

This straightforward statutory prescription has taken on more meaning over the past decade because Corporate America has significantly increased its use of debt given very low interest rates. Investors have been willing to fund the increase because negligible rates on “safe” assets have pushed individuals and institutions further out the risk curve to produce income.

Transactions that may meaningfully alter the capitalization of a company include leveraged dividend recapitalizations, leveraged buyouts, significant share repurchases, and special dividends funded with existing assets. Often a board contemplating such actions will be required to obtain a solvency opinion at the direction of its lenders or corporate counsel to provide evidence that the board exercised its duty of care to make an informed decision should the decision be challenged.

A solvency opinion addresses four questions

  • Does the fair value of the company’s assets exceed its liabilities after giving effect to the proposed action?
  • Will the company be able to pay its debts (or refinance them) as they mature?
  • Will the company be left with inadequate capital?
  • Does the fair value of the company’s assets exceed its liabilities and surplus to fund the transaction?

A solvency opinion is typically performed by a financial advisor who is independent, meaning the advisor has not arranged financing or provided other services related to the contemplated transaction. The opinion is based upon financial analysis to address the valuation of the corporation and its cash flow potential to assess its debt service capacity.

Also, the opinion is just that—it is an informed opinion. It is not a pseudo statement of fact predicated upon the “known” future performance of the Company. It provides a reasonable perspective concerning the future performance of the Company while neither promising to stakeholders that those projections will be met, nor obligating the Company to meet those projections.

Test 1: The Balance Sheet Test

Does the fair value and present fair saleable value of the Company’s total assets exceed the Company’s total liabilities, including all identified contingent liabilities?

The balance sheet test is a valuation test in which the value of the company’s liabilities are subtracted not from the assets recorded on the balance sheet, but rather the fair market value of the firm on a total invested capital basis. The value of the firm on a debt-free basis is estimated via traditional valuation methodologies, including Discounted Cash Flow (“DCF”), Guideline Public Company and Guideline Transactions (M&A) Methods. In some instances, the Net Asset Value (“NAV”) Method may be appropriate for certain types of holding companies in which assets can be marked-to-market.

Test 2: The Cash Flow Test

Will the Company be able to pay its liabilities, including any identified contingent liabilities, as they become due or mature?

This question addresses whether projected cash flows are sufficient for debt service. A more nuanced view evaluates the question along three general dimensions:

  • Revolver Capacity: If financial results approximate the forecast, does the Company have sufficient capacity, relying upon its revolving credit facility if necessary, to manage cash flow needs through each year?
  • Covenant Violations: Does the projected financial performance imply that the Company will violate covenants of the credit or loan agreement, or the terms of any other credit facility currently in place or under consideration as part of the subject transaction?
  • Ability to Refinance: Is it likely that the Company will be able to refinance any remaining balance at maturity?

Test 3: The Capital Adequacy Test

Does the Company have unreasonably small capital with which to operate the business in which it is engaged, as management has indicated such businesses are now conducted and as management has indicated such businesses are proposed to be conducted following the transaction?

The capital adequacy test is related to the cash flow test. A company may be projected to service its debt as payments come due, but a proposed transaction may leave the margin to do so too thin to address operating needs—something many companies discovered this year during which they were able to operate with high leverage as long as business conditions were favorable.

There is no bright line test for what “unreasonably small capital” means. We typically evaluate this concept based upon pro forma and projected leverage multiples (Debt/EBITDA and EBITDA/Interest Expense) relative to public market comps and rating agency benchmarks. While management’s projections represent a baseline scenario, alternative downside scenarios are constructed to asses the “unreasonably small capital” question in the same way downside scenario analyses are constructed to address the question of whether debts can be paid or refinanced when they come due.

Test 4: The Capital Surplus Test

Does the fair value of the Company’s assets exceed the sum of (a) its total liabilities (including identified contingent liabilities) and (b) its capital (as such capital is calculated pursuant to Section 154 of the Delaware General Corporation Law)?

The capital surplus test replicates the valuation analysis prescribed under the balance sheet test, but also includes the Company’s capital in the subtrahend (Hey! There is a word we haven’t seen since early primary school. The subtrahend is the value being subtracted.)

Section 154 of the Delaware General Corporation Law defines statutory capital as (a) the par value of the stock; or in stances when there is no par value as (b) the entire consideration received for the issuance of the stock. Capital as defined here is nuanced. Often it may be a small amount if par is some nominal amount such as a penny a share, but that may not always be the case. What is excluded is retained earnings (or deficit) from the equity account.

The Mosaic of Solvency

The tests described above are straightforward. Sometimes proposed transactions are straightforward regarding solvency, but often it is less clear—especially when the subject company operates in a cyclical industry. Every solvency analysis is unique to the subject transaction and company under review and requires an objective perspective to address the solvency issue.

Mercer Capital renders solvency opinions on behalf of private equity, independent committees, lenders and other stakeholders that are contemplating a transaction in which a significant amount of debt is assumed to fund shareholder dividends, an LBO, acquisition or other such transactions that materially lever the company’s capital structure.

Solvency Analysis as a Decision Tool

Not only is a solvency opinion a prudent tool for board members and other stakeholders, but the framework of solvency analysis is ready made to score strategic alternatives and facilitate capital deployment. If your board, senior management team, or capital providers need to discuss a significant financing in confidence, Mercer Capital’s advisory team is prepared to serve your needs.

>> Learn More About Our Solvency Opinion Services

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