It has been 34 years since the Delaware Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case Smith v. Van Gorkom, (Trans Union), (488 A. 2d Del. 1985) and thereby made the issuance of fairness opinions de rigueur in M&A and other significant corporate transactions. The backstory of Trans Union is the board approved an LBO that was engineered by the CEO without hiring a financial advisor to vet a transaction that was presented to them without any supporting materials.
Why would the board approve a transaction without extensive review? Perhaps there were multiple reasons, but bad advice and price probably were driving factors. An attorney told the board they could be sued if they did not approve a transaction that provided a hefty premium ($55 per share vs a trading range in the high $30s).
Although the Delaware Supreme Court found that the board acted in good faith, they had been grossly negligent in approving the offer. The Court expanded the concept of the Business Judgment Rule to include the duty of care in addition to the duties to act in good faith and loyalty. The Trans Union board did not make an informed decision even though the takeover price was attractive. The process by which a board goes about reaching a decision can be just as important as the decision itself.
Directors are generally shielded from challenges to corporate actions the board approves under the Business Judgement Rule provided there is not a breach of one of the three duties; however, once any of the three duties is breached the burden of proof shifts from the plaintiffs to the directors. In Trans Union the Court suggested had the board obtained a fairness opinion it would have been protected from liability for breach of the duty of care.
The suggestion was consequential. Fairness opinions are now issued in significant corporate transactions for virtually all public companies and many private companies and banks with minority shareholders that are considering a take-over, material acquisition, or other significant transaction.
Although not as widely practiced, there has been a growing trend for fairness opinions to be issued by independent financial advisors who are hired to solely evaluate the transaction as opposed to the banker who is paid a success fee in addition to receiving a fee for issuing a fairness opinion.
While the following is not a complete list, consideration should be given to obtaining a fairness opinion if one or more of these situations are present:
A fairness opinion involves a review of a transaction from a financial point of view that considers value (as a range concept) and the process the board followed. The financial advisor must look at pricing, terms, and consideration received in the context of the market for similar banks. The advisor then opines that the consideration to be received (sell-side) or paid (buy-side) is fair from a financial point of view of shareholders (particularly minority shareholders) provided the analysis leads to such a conclusion.
The fairness opinion is a short document, typically a letter. The supporting work behind the fairness opinion letter is substantial, however, and is presented in a separate fairness memorandum or equivalent document.
A well-developed fairness opinion will be based upon the following considerations that are expounded upon in an analysis that accompanies the opinion:
It is important to note what a fairness opinion does not prescribe, including:
Due diligence work is crucial to the development of the fairness opinion because there is no bright line test that consideration to be received or paid is fair or not. Mercer Capital has nearly four decades of experience in assessing bank (and non-bank) transactions and the issuance of fairness opinions. Please call if we can assist your board.
Originally appeared in Mercer Capital’s Bank Watch, April 2019
Jeff K. Davis is the Managing Director of Mercer Capital’s Financial Institutions Group. The Financial Institutions Group works with banks, thrifts, asset managers, insurance companies and agencies, BDCs, REITs, broker-dealers and financial technology companies. Prior to ...
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