M&A activity in the U.S. (and globally) has accelerated in 2014 after years of gradual improvement following the financial crisis. According to Dealogic, M&A volume where the target was a U.S. company totaled $1.4 trillion YTD through November 10, the highest YTD volume on record and up 43% from the same period last year. Excluding cross-border acquisitions, domestic-only M&A was $1.1 trillion, which represented the second highest YTD volume since 1999 and up 27% from last year. Healthcare and telecommunications were the first and second most targeted sectors.

The improvement has taken a long time even though corporate cash is high, financing costs are very low and organic revenue growth in most industries has been sluggish. Aside from improving confidence, another key foundation for increased M&A activity fell into place in 2013 when equity markets staged a strong rally as the S&P 500 rose 30% (32% with dividends) and the Russell 2000 increased 37% (39%). The absence of a meaningful pullback in 2014 and a 12% advance in the S&P 500 and 2% in the Russell 2000 have further supported activity.

The rally in equities, like low borrowing rates, has reduced the cost to finance acquisitions because the majority of stocks experienced multiple expansion rather than material growth in EPS. It is easier for a buyer to issue shares to finance an acquisition if the shares trade at rich valuation than issuing “cheap” shares. As of November 24, the S&P 500’s P/E based upon trailing earnings (as reported) was 20.0x compared to 18.2x at year-end 2013, 17.0x at year-end 2012 and 14.9x at year-end 2011. The long-term average P/E since 1871 is 15.5x (Source: http://www.multpl.com).

High multiple stocks can be viewed as strong acquisition currencies for acquisitive companies because fewer shares have to be issued to achieve a targeted dollar value. As such, it is no surprise that the extended rally in equities has supported deal activity this year. However, high multiple stocks may represent an under-appreciated risk to sellers who receive the shares as consideration. Accepting the buyer’s stock raises a number of questions, most which fall into the genre of: what are the investment merits of the buyer’s shares? The answer may not be as obvious as it seems, even when the buyer’s shares are actively traded.

Our experience is that some, if not most, members of a board weighing an acquisition proposal do not have the background to thoroughly evaluate the buyer’s shares. Even when financial advisors are involved there still may not be a thorough vetting of the buyer’s shares because there is too much focus on “price” instead of, or in addition to, “value.”

A fairness opinion is more than a three or four page letter that opines as to the fairness from a financial point of a contemplated transaction; it should be backed by a robust analysis of all of the relevant factors considered in rendering the opinion, including an evaluation of the shares to be issued to the selling company’s shareholders. The intent is not to express an opinion about where the shares may trade in the future, but rather to evaluate the investment merits of the shares before and after a transaction is consummated.

Key questions to ask about the buyer’s shares include the following:

  • Liquidity of the Shares. What is the capacity to sell the shares issued in the merger? SEC registration and even NASDAQ and NYSE listings do not guarantee that large blocks can be liquidated efficiently. Generally, the higher the institutional ownership, the better the liquidity. Also, liquidity may improve with an acquisition if the number of shares outstanding and shareholders increase sufficiently.
  • Profitability and Revenue Trends. The analysis should consider the buyer’s historical growth and projected growth in revenues, and operating earnings, (usually EBITDA or EBITDA less capital expenditures) in addition to EPS. Issues to be vetted include customer concentrations, the source of growth, the source of any margin pressure and the like. The quality of earnings and a comparison of core vs. reported earnings over a multi-year period should be evaluated.
  • Pro Forma Impact. The analysis should consider the impact of a proposed transaction on revenues, EBITDA, margins, EPS and capital structure. The per share accretion and dilution analysis of such metrics as earnings, EBITDA and dividends should consider both the buyer’s and seller’s perspectives.
  • Dividends. In a yield starved world, dividend paying stocks have greater attraction than in past years. Sellers should not be overly swayed by the pick-up in dividends from swapping into the buyer’s shares; however, multiple studies have demonstrated that a sizable portion of an investor’s return comes from dividends over long periods of time. If the dividend yield is notably above the peer average, the seller should ask why? Is it payout related, or are the shares depressed? Worse would be if the market expected a dividend cut. These same questions should also be asked in the context of the prospects for further increases.
  • Capital Structure. Does the acquirer operate with an appropriate capital structure given industry norms, cyclicality of the business and investment needs to sustain operations? Will the proposed acquisition result in an over-leveraged company, which in turn may lead to pressure on the buyer’s shares and/or a rating downgrade if the buyer has rated debt?
  • Balance Sheet Flexibility. Related to the capital structure should be a detailed review of the buyer’s balance sheet that examines such areas as liquidity, access to bank credit, and the carrying value of assets such as deferred tax assets.
  • Ability to Raise Cash to Close. What is the source of funds for the buyer to fund the cash portion of consideration? If the buyer has to go to market to issue equity and/or debt, what is the contingency plan if unfavorable market conditions preclude floating an issue?
  • Consensus Analyst Estimates. If the buyer is publicly traded and has analyst coverage, consideration should be given to Street expectations vs. what the diligence process determines. If Street expectations are too high, then the shares may be vulnerable once investors reassess their earnings and growth expectations.
  • Valuation. Like profitability, valuation of the buyer’s shares should be judged relative to its history and a peer group presently as well as relative to a peer group through time to examine how investors’ views of the shares may have evolved through market and profit cycles.
  • Share Performance. Sellers should understand the source of the buyer’s shares performance over several multi-year holding periods. For example, if the shares have significantly outperformed an index over a given holding period, is it because earnings growth accelerated? Or, is it because the shares were depressed at the beginning of the measurement period? Likewise, underperformance may signal disappointing earnings, or it may reflect a starting point valuation that was unusually high.
  • Strategic Position. Assuming an acquisition is material for the buyer, directors of the selling board should consider the strategic position of the buyer, asking such questions about the attractiveness of the pro forma company to other acquirers.
  • Contingent Liabilities. Contingent liabilities are a standard item on the due diligence punch list for a buyer. Sellers should evaluate contingent liabilities too.

The list does not encompass every question that should be asked as part of the fairness analysis, but it does illustrate that a liquid market for a buyer’s shares does not necessarily answer questions about value, growth potential and risk profile.

We at Mercer Capital have extensive experience in valuing and evaluating the shares (and debt) of financial and non-financial service companies garnered from over three decades of business. Feel free to contact us to discuss your situation in confidence.

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