This is the seventh 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.

Contingent consideration is a common feature of M&A when both parties are private, or the acquirer is public, and the target is private. There are many forms of contingent consideration in M&A. These include post closing purchase price adjustments that can alter total transaction value or that can alter the payment and realization of net proceeds through the recovery of transaction set-asides such as escrow balances or the payment of holdbacks and deferrals.

What Do Earnouts Entail?

The most common contingent payment is an “earn-out” that bridges the buyer’s bid and the seller’s ask by ensuring the business produces an agreed upon level of revenues and/or earnings (typically EBITDA) within an agreed timeframe before the payment is made.

Earn-outs could be considered the ultimate form of confirmatory due diligence. From a buyer’s perspective, earn-outs reduce risk by reducing up-front cash and the likelihood of materially overpaying absent an adverse turn in the economy or industry conditions. From a seller’s perspective, contingent consideration allows sellers to obtain an acceptable price and sometimes a premium or stretch valuation if the Company attains the agreed-upon targets. Further, earnouts create an alignment of interests to the extent roll-over management and ownership is incented to optimize the company’s performance.

In our experience, most buyers are willing to pay in a range of value that produces an acceptable return based upon conservative assumptions about the business’ future earning power (EBITDA or EBITDA less capex) and growth rate. Unless the business is viewed as having above average risk, most buyers’ required rate of return on an unlevered basis will be conservative but not ridiculously high. This reflects buyers’ natural aversion to risks that may not be readily apparent to most sellers. An earn-out is a means by which to close or narrow this gap.

When earnouts are involved, buyers and sellers must understand the waterfall of post-closing events, and their respective timing and terms to gain a full understanding of transaction consideration. Earnouts are a form of purchase consideration where acquirers tender value to the target seller if certain future events occur. Earnouts provide sellers with potential value fulfillment or upside while simultaneously allowing buyers to defer payment of consideration with the possibility of recovering a designated portion of the purchase price if post-closing hurdles are not achieved.

By its nature, contingent consideration adds complexity for both buyers and sellers, particularly when the features of the earnout reflect significant speculation on post-closing outcomes. These might include high growth, reversals of trend, or specific events such as new business developments or failed business retention.

Despite the complexities, earnouts and other forms of contingent consideration can be critical to achieving a successful closing when market conditions are ebbing more than flowing or when winning the day requires the buyer to make a stretch offer.

Mid-Market Deals Increasingly Reflect Up-Market Deal Structures

According to GF Data®, a firm that provides data on private equity-sponsored M&A transactions with an enterprise value of $10 to $250 million, 38% of 432 transactions in 2021 entailed either seller financing or earnouts compared to 44% of 329 deals in 2020. The reduction last year reflected a seller’s market that was characterized by too much capital chasing a limited pool of sellers. Given tighter financial conditions this year that may lead to a recession later this year or next, it would not surprise us to see the percentage of deals with an earnout increase because the risk to a target’s earnings and maybe long-term growth prospects will rise.

A financial advisor can be an important intermediary for both buyer and seller to craft a well structured earnout to facilitate successful deal negotiations rather than letting a poorly crafted and/or poorly socialized earnout create a negotiation wedge that can delay or overwhelm momentum required to finalize a purchase agreement.

Buyer Awareness and Financial Reporting

While it should not impact the economics of a transaction, buyers face the added burden of accounting for contingent consideration per FASB’s ASC 805, which addresses business combinations. It requires that the fair value of contingent consideration be recorded as a liability at the acquisition date, resulting in an increased amount of goodwill or other intangible asset depending upon how value is allocated to the acquired assets. Fair value also must be re-measured for each subsequent reporting period until the contingency is settled. Mercer Capital’s years of M&A purchase price allocation work for both strategic and financial acquirers gives us unique insight into the sometimes nettlesome issues of purchase price allocations in M&A transactions.

Concluding Thoughts

While this article is an installment in our larger buy-side series of content, it is important to draw advice for buyers from our near universal advice to sellers.

We often advise sellers to be content with the consideration they receive at closing and to assess contingent consideration with a healthy degree of skeptical risk, particularly when achieving the earnout represents a stretch in future outcomes.

A logical extension of that advice for buyers is to be prepared to pay even if the benchmarks are deemed a stretch. The occasional extraordinary outcome can create significant buyer liability. Whether the net effect on the buyer is a beneficial deferral of payment or a deal premium (or otherwise) must be assessed in the context of the overall offering stack.

Buyers should determine the reason for using an earnout and then determine an appropriate design for the earnout. Clear, unambiguous terms and measurements are recommended to minimize negotiating friction and incent smooth post-closing integration and alignment of interests both operationally and financially.

If your development needs involve growth through acquisition, and you find the market for quality targets requires the thoughtful use of earnout consideration, Mercer Capital can provide useful insight while helping quantify the real-time financial equivalency of any earnout consideration offered.

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