This is the eighth 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.

Directors are periodically asked to make tough decisions about the strategic direction of a company. Major acquisitions are usually one of the toughest calls boards are required to make.

A board’s fiduciary duty to shareholders is encapsulated by three mandates:

  • Act in good faith;
  • Duty of care (informed decision making); and
  • Duty of loyalty (no self-dealing; conflicts disclosed).

Directors are generally shielded from courts second guessing their decisions by the business judgment rule provided there is no breach of duty to shareholders. The presumption is that non-conflicted directors made an informed decision in good faith. As a result, the burden of proof that a transaction is not fair and/or there was a breach of duty resides with the plaintiffs.

An independent fairness opinion helps demonstrate that the directors of an acquiring corporation are fulfilling their fiduciary duties of making an informed decision.

Fairness opinions seek to answer the question whether the consideration to be paid (or received from a seller’s perspective) is fair to a company’s shareholders from a financial point of view. Occasionally, a board will request a broader opinion (e.g., the transaction is fair).

A fairness opinion does not predict where the buyer’s shares may trade in the future. Nor does a fairness opinion approve or disapprove a board’s course of action. The opinion, backed by a rigorous valuation analysis and review of the process that led to the transaction, is just that: an opinion of fairness from a financial point of view.

Delaware, the SEC and Fairness

Fairness opinions are not required under Delaware law or federal securities law, but they have become de rigueur in corporate M&A ever since the Delaware Supreme Court ruled in 1985 that directors of TransUnion were grossly negligent because they approved a merger without adequate inquiry and expert advice. The court did not specifically mandate the opinion be obtained but stated it would have helped the board carryout its duty of care had it obtained a fairness opinion regarding the firm’s value and the fairness of the proposal.

The SEC has weighed in, too, in an oblique fashion via comments that were published in the Federal Register in 2007 (Vol. 72, No. 202, October 19, 2007) when FINRA proposed rule 2290 (now 5150) regarding disclosures and procedures for the issuance of fairness opinions by broker-dealers. The SEC noted that the opinions served a variety of purposes, including as indicia of the exercise of care by the board in a corporate control transaction and to supplement information available to shareholders through a proxy.

Dow’s Sour Pickle

Buy-side fairness opinions have a unique place in corporate affairs because the corporate acquirer has to live with the transaction. What seems fair today but is deemed foul tomorrow, may create a liability for directors and executive officers. This can be especially true if the economy and/or industry conditions deteriorate after consummation of a transaction.

For instance, The Dow Chemical Company (“Dow”), a subsidiary of Dow Inc. (NYSE: DOW), agreed to buy Rohm and Haas (“RH”) for $15.4 billion in cash on July 10, 2008. The $78 per share purchase price represented a 75% premium to RH’s prior day close. The ensuing global market rout and the failure of a planned joint venture with a Kuwait petrochemical company led Dow to seek to terminate the deal in January 2009 and to cut the dividend for the first time in the then 97 years the dividend had been paid.

Ultimately, the parties settled litigation and Dow closed the acquisition on April 1, 2009 after obtaining an investment from Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK.A) and seller financing via the sale of preferred stock to RH’s two largest shareholders.

Dow was well represented and obtained multiple fairness opinions from its advisors (Citigroup, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley). One can question how the advisors concluded a 75% one-day premium was fair to Dow’s shareholders (fairness is a mosaic and maybe RH’s shares were severely depressed in the 2008 bear market). Nonetheless, the affair illustrates how vulnerable Dow’s Board of Directors or any board would have been absent the fairness opinions.

Fairness and Elon

Before Elon Musk reneged on his planned acquisition of Twitter, Inc. (NYSE: TWTR) on July 8, 2022, one of the most recent contentious corporate acquisitions was the 2016 acquisition of SolarCity Corporation by Tesla Inc. (NASDAQGS: TSLA). Plaintiffs sought up to $13 billion of damages, arguing that (a) the Tesla Board of Directors breached its duty of loyalty, (b) Musk was unjustly enriched (Musk owned ~22% of both companies and was Chairman of both); and (c) the acquisition constituted waste.

Delaware Court of Chancery Judge Joseph Slights ruled in favor of Tesla on April 27, 2022. Slights noted courts are sometimes skeptical of fairness opinions; however, he was not skeptical of Evercore’s opinion, noting extensive diligence, the immediate alerting of the Tesla Board about SolarCity’s liquidity situation and the absence of prior work by Evercore for Tesla.



Tesla Walks the Entirely Fair Line with SolarCity

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