Fair. It’s the first-four-letter word that most children learn, and it often leads to more arguments than other choice words. Although children eventually learn that life is not always fair, we spend a lot of time ensuring that major economic events are. Transactions are rarely straightforward, and as the pace of M&A activity in the investment management community continues to accelerate, more shareholders are scrutinizing both the pricing and terms of transactions.
Over the next two posts, we will explain when you should consider getting a Fairness Opinion and what that involves.
What Is a FAIR Transaction?
Under U.S. case law, the concept of the “Business Judgment Rule” presumes directors will make informed decisions that reflect good faith, care, and loyalty to shareholders. If any of these three are not met, then the “entire fairness standard” requires that, in the absence of an arms-length deal, transactions must be conducted with fair dealings (process) and at fair prices.
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. If a Board obtains a Fairness Opinion in significant transactions, they are more likely to be protected from this liability.
Questions of value and fair dealing are subject to scrutiny, even in bull markets. Rapidly improving markets may lead your shareholders to question whether the price accepted in the context of negotiating and opining on a transaction could have been better. Below, we outline some circumstances when you should consider getting a Fairness Opinion before closing a deal.
9x EBITDA in a 15x EBITDA World Fantasy
The prominence of headlines touting impressive deal multiples has led to some unrealistic shareholder expectations around valuation. Yes, average deal multiples have increased over the last decade, more prospective buyers for your RIA exist today than there were five years ago, and maybe an irrational buyer with capacity will stroke checks for double-digit multiples. But the increase in average valuation multiples is being driven by a myriad of factors that do not perfectly correlate with the valuations of small to mid-sized RIAs.
Echelon Partners 2020 RIA M&A Deal Report noted that the number of $1B+ transactions has doubled over the last five years. Most of these acquisitions, and especially the ones that attract headlines, warrant these higher multiples due to their sheer scale, rarity, and strategic significance. Not every RIA has the scale, growth pattern, and risk profile to warrant top-tier pricing. And, ultimately, no two asset managers, wealth managers, IBDs, OCIOs, or independent trust companies are alike.
Nevertheless, boards facing a mismatch between shareholder expectations and market realities are in a tough position justifying a transaction. The evaluation and negotiation process is tricky when markets continue to climb day after day. Yet, Fairness Opinions can be used as one element of a decision process to evaluate significant transactions.
Would You Prefer $10M or $7M Today, and $2M Each Year for the Next 3 Years?
Most acquisitions of investment managers involve some form of contingent consideration. When evaluating multiple offers that involve varying amounts of upfront cash; equity consideration; and earn-out payments, periods, and terms, a Fairness Opinion can help Boards evaluate the economic merits of the terms being offered.
Many RIAs receive unsolicited offers from their friends, competitors, or institutional consolidators. When there is only one bid for the company and competing bids have not been solicited, the fairness of the transaction can more easily be disputed. Not every sale is best conducted in an auction process, but the prospective buyer making an unsolicited offer knows that it is, at least for the moment, the only bidder. The objective of an unsolicited offer is to get the seller’s attention and cause them to start negotiations, often giving the bidder an exclusive right to negotiate for a fixed amount of time. As the head of our investment management group, Mercer Capital President, Matt Crow, explains, “An unsolicited offer may be a competitive bid, but it is not a bid made in a competitive market.”
The Investment Management Community Is Small
Although there are over 13,500 SEC-registered investment advisors in the U.S., the investment management community within a given sector or geography is fairly close-knit. Many RIAs join forces or sell to other RIAs they have known for many years. This is part of the reason deals work. In a relationship-driven business, it is hard to merge with or sell to someone with whom you don’t have an existing relationship. But anytime insiders or related parties are involved in a transaction, a Fairness Opinion can serve as a confirmation to a company’s shareholders that improper acts of self-dealings have not occurred.
We have extensive experience in valuing investment management companies engaged in transactions during bull, bear, and boring markets. Mercer Capital’s comprehensive valuation and transaction experience with investment managers enables us to provide unbiased fairness opinions that directors can rely on to assure their stakeholders that the decisions being made are fair and reasonable.