This is the third 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 previous articles click here.

When given the choice between paying more or less for a good or service, it only makes sense that people prefer to pay less. Following this, a rational person would be expected to pay no more than the minimum available price for an item. Many modern business acquisitions appear to defy this logic – at least at first glance. According to Bloomberg, acquirers paid an average premium of 25.86% when making transactions in 2021. In other words, the average acquirer was willing to pay almost 26% above the intrinsic market value of a target business to successfully bid on an acquisition.

Theory holds that the value of any corporation, especially a controlling interest in such corporation, should have a value equal to the present value of the cash flows expected to benefit shareholders. This is called a financial control value and represents the intrinsic value of the company on a stand-alone basis. As evidenced by the premium data noted above, many acquirers buy businesses at a value higher than this intrinsic value, paying what is referred to as a strategic premium.

What Is a Strategic Premium?

A strategic premium exists when a buyer expects that two plus two equals five, or possibly even some figure above five. In less abstract terms, acquirers pay a strategic premium when they expect that the combination of their business with another will generate more cash flow than both businesses on a standalone basis. A strategic premium reflects the portion of this added benefit that the buyer is willing pay to the seller to secure a deal.

To give an example, let’s say that Company A and Company B both generate $2 in EBITDA each year. Both companies may have an intrinsic stand-alone value of $12 (6x EBITDA). When Company A acquires B, they might pay 7.5x EBITDA ($15) because they expect that by combining into Company AB, the Company will generate a total of $5 of EBITDA per year (2+2=5) – providing for a combined intrinsic value of $30 (6x EBITDA). The difference between Company B’s stand-alone value of $12 and the $15 that Company A is willing to pay for it is $3, a 25% strategic premium. Company A spends $15 to increase their value from $12 to $30 – a deal that is accretive to shareholder value.

What Justifies a Strategic Premium?

The framework we provided for the strategic premium begs a larger question: what justifies a strategic premium? Ultimately, there are several possible explanations. Acquirers pay a strategic premium when they expect to gain some sort of efficiency through a business combination. As outlined in our previous example, they expect that these efficiencies will generate more cash flows than both companies can produce on a standalone basis. There are many efficiencies that companies could expect from a transaction, but three are most common.

Cost Savings

Cost savings are the most common justification for strategic premiums, often because they are comparatively easy to forecast.

Let’s go back to our two companies from earlier. Let’s say that Companies A and B both need to purchase the same raw material to create widgets. Once the companies combine, they still need the same amount of raw materials, but they will likely place a smaller number of larger orders. Since each order that comes in will now be larger, their suppliers may give them a bulk discount, which lowers the overall cost. By combining, Companies A and B are spending less money to bring in the same amount of revenue-generating raw materials, leading to larger amounts of profit and free cash flow.

Cost savings can come from supply costs, staff eliminations, or any number of other areas. These savings are usually both the most obvious and quickly achieved strategic enhancements following an acquisition.

Revenue Enhancements

Revenue enhancements are another common justification for strategic premiums but are harder to model.

There are many ways in which revenue enhancements can occur, but we focus on a simple example for the sake of this article. If Company A has a large distribution network, they can use that network to sell Company B’s products to a larger group of people than Company B had been able to previously. Bringing in this additional should increase profits and create more free cash flow.

Process Improvements

Process improvements come about when the companies involved in a transaction absorb each other’s core competencies or assets. Mixing these competencies or assets can create revenue enhancements and/or operational efficiencies.

Continuing our examination of Companies A and B, Company A might pay a premium for Company B if they see that Company B has some sort of proprietary efficient process for creating widgets that Company A could learn and take advantage of. In today’s world, such considerations often focus on technology – be it software of some other form of technology. If the target company’s technology can be utilized by an acquirer to enhance the acquirer’s own cash flow, a strategic premium may be in the offing.

Should You Pay a Strategic Premium?

Now that we have reviewed the theory behind strategic premiums, we discuss how they can be advantageous or detrimental to acquirers.

Perhaps the most obvious benefit of paying a strategic premium is that it can prevent other firms from purchasing the acquiree first. Sellers in a transaction are incentivized to maximize price. By paying a higher premium, strategic acquirers can entice sellers away from financial buyers or other seemingly “less strategic” buyers. On the other hand, paying a strategic premium is a potential risk. A higher acquisition price increases the amount of cash flows necessary to recoup the acquirer’s investment. If the premium is too high, even an acquisition with compelling strategic benefits can become unprofitable.

Ultimately the reasonable price to pay for a target depends on the buyer. Different suitors will expect different efficiencies from the acquisition. To avoid paying too large of a premium, acquirers must have a realistic notion of what they can pay for a target before entering negotiations. Even then, buyers need to exercise discipline and know when to walk away from a bidding war that has gotten too heated.

Acquirers are most likely to be successful when they have an organized process for ensuring that the rationale behind the acquisition justifies the transaction price. Such a process usually includes the analysis (and scrutiny) of the specific enhancements anticipated from a transaction. Strategic enhancements often seem reasonable when considered generally but may fall apart (or at least shrink in magnitude) when under the light of detailed financial inspection. Premiums paid on the basis of only a general consideration of strategic enhancements could be doomed for failure. The success of such deals is often based more on luck than anything else.

Concluding Thoughts

To mitigate the risk of overpaying for an acquisition (and to reduce the impact of pure luck), we recommend a detailed financial inspection of both the target company and the potential strategic value of any transaction. As part of this analysis, it will likely benefit an acquirer to retain a transaction advisory team that possesses financial and valuation expertise.

Since Mercer Capital’s founding in 1982, we have worked with a broad range of public and private companies and financial institutions. As financial advisors, Mercer Capital looks to assess the strategic fit of every prospect through initial planning, rigorous industry and financial analysis, target or buyer screening, negotiations, and exhaustive due diligence so that our clients reach the right decision regardless of outcome. Our dedicated and responsive deal team stands ready to help your business manage the transaction process.

About the Authors