A merger occurs when one firm assumes all the assets and all the liabilities of another. The acquiring firm retains its identity, while the acquired firm ceases to exist. A majority vote of shareholders is generally required to approve a merger. A merger is just one type of acquisition. One company can acquire another in several other ways, including purchasing some or all of the company's assets or buying up its outstanding shares of stock.
In general, mergers and other types of acquisitions are performed in the hopes of realizing an economic gain. For such a transaction to be justified, the two firms involved must be worth more together than they were apart. Some of the potential advantages of mergers and acquisitions include achieving economies of scale, combining complementary resources, garnering tax advantages, and eliminating inefficiencies. Other reasons for considering growth through acquisitions include obtaining proprietary rights to products or services, increasing market power by purchasing competitors, shoring up weaknesses in key business areas, penetrating new geographic regions, or providing managers with new opportunities for career growth and advancement. Since mergers and acquisitions are so complex, however, it can be very difficult to evaluate the transaction, define the associated costs and benefits, and handle the resulting tax and legal issues.
"In today's global business environment, companies may have to grow to survive, and one of the best ways to grow is by merging with another company or acquiring other companies," consultant Jacalyn Sherriton told Robert McGarvey in an interview for Entrepreneur. "Massive, multibillion-dollar corporations are becoming the norm, leaving an entrepreneur to wonder whether a merger ought to be in his or her plans, too," McGarvey continued.
When a small business owner chooses to merge with or sell out to another company, it is sometimes called "harvesting" the small business. In this situation, the transaction is intended to release the value locked up in the small business for the benefit of its owners and investors. The impetus for a small business owner to pursue a sale or merger may involve estate planning, a need to diversify his or her investments, an inability to finance growth independently, or a simple need for change. In addition, some small businesses find that the best way to grow and compete against larger firms is to merge with or acquire other small businesses.
In principle, the decision to merge with or acquire another firm is a capital budgeting decision much like any other. But mergers differ from ordinary investment decisions in at least five ways. First, the value of a merger may depend on such things as strategic fits that are difficult to measure. Second, the accounting, tax, and legal aspects of a merger can be complex. Third, mergers often involve issues of corporate control and are a means of replacing existing management. Fourth, mergers obviously affect the value of the firm, but they also affect the relative value of the stocks and bonds. Finally, mergers are often "unfriendly."
In general, acquisitions can be horizontal, vertical, or conglomerate. A horizontal acquisition takes place between two firms in the same line of business. For example, one tool and die company might purchase another. In contrast, a vertical merger entails expanding forward or backward in the chain of distribution, toward the source of raw materials or toward the ultimate consumer. For example, an auto parts manufacturer might purchase a retail auto parts store. A conglomerate is formed through the combination of unrelated businesses.
Another type of combination of two companies is a consolidation. In a consolidation, an entirely new firm is created, and the two previous entities cease to exist. Consolidated financial statements are prepared under the assumption that two or more corporate entities are in actuality only one. The consolidated statements are prepared by combining the account balances of the individual firms after certain adjusting and eliminating entries are made.
Another way to acquire a firm is to buy the voting stock. This can be done by agreement of management or by tender offer. In a tender offer, the acquiring firm makes the offer to buy stock directly to the shareholders, thereby bypassing management. In contrast to a merger, a stock acquisition requires no stockholder voting. Shareholders wishing to keep their stock can simply do so. Also, a minority of shareholders may hold out in a tender offer.
A bidding firm can also buy another simply by purchasing all its assets. This involves a costly legal transfer of title and must be approved by the shareholders of the selling firm. A takeover is the transfer of control from one group to another. Normally, the acquiring firm (the bidder) makes an offer for the target firm. In a proxy contest, a group of dissident shareholders will seek to obtain enough votes to gain control of the board of directors.
Mergers and acquisitions can be either tax-free or taxable events. The tax status of a transaction may affect its value from both the buyer's and the seller's viewpoints. In a taxable acquisition, the assets of the selling firm are revalued or "written up." Therefore, the depreciation deduction will rise (assets are not revalued in a tax-free acquisition). But the selling shareholders will have to pay capital gains taxes and thus will want more for their shares to compensate. This is known as the capital gains effect. The capital gains and write-up effects tend to cancel each other out.
Certain exchanges of stock are considered tax-free reorganizations, which permit the owners of one company to exchange their shares for the stock of the acquirer without paying taxes. There are three basic types of tax-free reorganizations. In order for a transaction to qualify as a type A tax-free reorganization, it must be structured in certain ways. In contrast to a type B reorganization, the type A transaction allows the buyer to use either voting or nonvoting stock. It also permits the buyer to use more cash in the total consideration since the law does not stipulate a maximum amount of cash that can be used. At least 50 percent of the consideration, however, must be stock in the acquiring corporation. In addition, in a type A reorganization, the acquiring corporation may choose not to purchase all the target's assets.
In instances where at least 50 percent of the bidder's stock is used as the consideration—but other considerations such as cash, debt, or nonequity securities are also used—the transaction may be partially taxable. Capital gains taxes must be paid on those shares that were exchanged for nonequity consideration.
A type B reorganization requires that the acquiring corporation use mainly its own voting common stock as the consideration for purchase of the target corporation's common stock. Cash must comprise no more than 20 percent of the total consideration, and at least 80 percent of the target's stock must be paid for by voting stock by the bidder.
Target stockholders who receive the stock of the acquiring corporation in exchange for their common stock are not immediately taxed on the consideration they receive. Taxes will have to be paid only if the stock is eventually sold. If cash is included in the transaction, this cash may be taxed to the extent that it represents a gain on the sale of stock.
In a type C reorganization, the acquiring corporation must purchase 80 percent of the fair market value of the target's assets. In this type of reorganization, a tax liability results when the acquiring corporation purchases the assets of the target using consideration other than stock in the acquiring corporation. The tax liability is measured by comparing the purchase price of the assets with the adjusted basis of these assets.
The two principal accounting methods used in mergers and acquisitions are the pooling of interests method and the purchase method. The main difference between them is the value that the combined firm's balance sheet places on the assets of the acquired firm, as well as the depreciation allowances and charges against income following the merger.
The pooling of interests method assumes that the transaction is simply an exchange of equity securities. Therefore, the capital stock account of the target firm is eliminated, and the acquirer issues new stock to replace it. The two firms' assets and liabilities are combined at their historical book values as of the acquisition date. The end result of a pooling of interests transaction is that the total assets of the combined firm are equal to the sum of the assets of the individual firms. No goodwill is generated, and there are no charges against earnings. A tax-free acquisition would normally be reported as a pooling of interests.
Under the purchase method, assets and liabilities are shown on the merged firm's books at their market (not book) values as of the acquisition date. This method is based on the idea that the resulting values should reflect the market values established during the bargaining process. The total liabilities of the combined firm equal the sum of the two firms' individual liabilities. The equity of the acquiring firm is increased by the amount of the purchase price.
Accounting for the excess of cost over the aggregate of the fair market values of the identifiable net assets acquired applies only in purchase accounting. The excess is called goodwill, an asset which is charged against income and amortized over a period that cannot exceed 40 years. Although the amortization "expense" is deducted from reported income, it cannot be deducted for tax purposes.
Purchase accounting usually results in increased depreciation charges because the book value of most assets is usually less than fair value because of inflation. For tax purposes, however, depreciation does not increase because the tax basis of the assets remains the same. Since depreciation under pooling accounting is based on the old book values of the assets, accounting income is usually higher under the pooling method. The accounting treatment has no cash flow consequences. Thus, value should be unaffected by accounting procedure. However, some firms may dislike the purchase method because of the goodwill created. The reason for this is that goodwill is amortized over a period of years.
Valuing an acquisition candidate is similar to valuing any investment. The analyst estimates the incremental cash flows, determines an appropriate risk-adjusted discount rate, and then computes the net present value (NPV). If firm A is acquiring firm B, for example, then the acquisition makes economic sense if the value of the combined firm is greater than the value of firm A plus the value of firm B. Synergy is said to exist when the cash flow of the combined firm is greater than the sum of the cash flows for the two firms as separate companies. The gain from the merger is the present value of this difference in cash flows.
SOURCES OF GAINS FROM ACQUISITIONS The gains from an acquisition may result from one or more of the following five categories:1) revenue enhancement, 2) cost reductions, 3) lower taxes, 4) changing capital requirements, or 5) a lower cost of capital. Increased revenues may come from marketing gains, strategic benefits, and market power. Marketing gains arise from more effective advertising, economies of distribution, and a better mix of products. Strategic benefits represent opportunities to enter new lines of business. Finally, a merger may reduce competition, thereby increasing market power. Such mergers, of course, may run afoul of antitrust legislation.
A larger firm may be able to operate more efficiently than two smaller firms, thereby reducing costs. Horizontal mergers may generate economies of scale. This means that the average production cost will fall as production volume increases. A vertical merger may allow a firm to decrease costs by more closely coordinating production and distribution. Finally, economies may be achieved when firms have complementary resources—for example, when one firm has excess production capacity and another has insufficient capacity.
Tax gains in mergers may arise because of unused tax losses, unused debt capacity, surplus funds, and the write-up of depreciable assets. The tax losses of target corporations can be used to offset the acquiring corporation's future income. These tax losses can be used to offset income for a maximum of 15 years or until the tax loss is exhausted. Only tax losses for the previous three years can be used to offset future income.
Tax loss carry-forwards can motivate mergers and acquisitions. A company that has earned profits may find value in the tax losses of a target corporation that can be used to offset the income it plans to earn. A merger may not, however, be structured solely for tax purposes. In addition, the acquirer must continue to operate the pre-acquisition business of the company in a net loss position. The tax benefits may be less than their "face value," not only because of the time value of money, but also because the tax loss carry-forwards might expire without being fully utilized.
Tax advantages can also arise in an acquisition when a target firm carries assets on its books with basis, for tax purposes, below their market value. These assets could be more valuable, for tax purposes, if they were owned by another corporation that could increase their tax basis following the acquisition. The acquirer would then depreciate the assets based on the higher market values, in turn, gaining additional depreciation benefits.
Interest payments on debt are a tax-deductible expense, whereas dividend payments from equity ownership are not. The existence of a tax advantage for debt is an incentive to have greater use of debt, as opposed to equity, as the means of financing merger and acquisition transactions. Also, a firm that borrows much less than it could may be an acquisition target because of its unused debt capacity. While the use of financial leverage produces tax benefits, debt also increases the likelihood of financial distress in the event that the acquiring firm cannot meet its interest payments on the acquisition debt.
Finally, a firm with surplus funds may wish to acquire another firm. The reason is that distributing the money as a dividend or using it to repurchase shares will increase income taxes for shareholders. With an acquisition, no income taxes are paid by shareholders.
Acquiring firms may be able to more efficiently utilize working capital and fixed assets in the target firm, thereby reducing capital requirements and enhancing profitability. This is particularly true if the target firm has redundant assets that may be divested.
The cost of debt can often be reduced when two firms merge. The combined firm will generally have reduced variability in its cash flows. Therefore, there may be circumstances under which one or the other of the firms would have defaulted on its debt, but the combined firm will not. This makes the debt safer, and the cost of borrowing may decline as a result. This is termed the coinsurance effect.
Diversification is often cited as a benefit in mergers. Diversification by itself, however, does not create any value because stockholders can accomplish the same thing as the merger by buying stock in both firms.
VALUATION PROCEDURES The procedure for valuing an acquisition candidate depends on the source of the estimated gains. Different sources of synergy have different risks. Tax gains can be estimated fairly accurately and should be discounted at the cost of debt. Cost reductions through operating efficiencies can also be determined with some confidence. Such savings should be discounted at a normal weighted average cost of capital. Gains from strategic benefits are difficult to estimate and are often highly uncertain. A discount rate greater than the overall cost of capital would thus be appropriate.
The net present value (NPV) of the acquisition is equal to the gains less the cost of the acquisition. The cost depends on whether cash or stock is used as payment. The cost of an acquisition when cash is used is just the amount paid. The cost of the merger when common stock is used as the consideration (the payment) is equal to the percentage of the new firm that is owned by the previous shareholders in the acquired firm multiplied by the value of the new firm. In a cash merger the benefits go entirely to the acquiring firm, whereas in a stock-for-stock exchange the benefits are shared by the acquiring and acquired firms.
Whether to use cash or stock depends on three considerations. First, if the acquiring firm's management believes that its stock is overvalued, then a stock acquisition may be cheaper. Second, a cash acquisition is usually taxable, which may result in a higher price. Third, the use of stock means that the acquired firm will share in any gains from merger; if the merger has a negative NPV, however, then the acquired firm will share in the loss.
In valuing acquisitions, the following factors should be kept in mind. First, market values must not be ignored. Thus, there is no need to estimate the value of a publicly traded firm as a separate entity. Second, only those cash flows that are incremental are relevant to the analysis. Third, the discount rate used should reflect the risk associated with the incremental cash flows. Therefore, the acquiring firm should not use its own cost of capital to value the cash flows of another firm. Finally, acquisition may involve significant investment banking fees and costs.
The replacement of poor management is a potential source of gain from acquisition. Changing technological and competitive factors may lead to a need for corporate restructuring. If incumbent management is unable to adapt, then a hostile acquisition is one method for accomplishing change.
Hostile acquisitions generally involve poorly performing firms in mature industries, and occur when the board of directors of the target is opposed to the sale of the company. In this case, the acquiring firm has two options to proceed with the acquisition—a tender offer or a proxy fight. A tender offer represents an offer to buy the stock of the target firm either directly from the firm's shareholders or through the secondary market. In a proxy fight, the acquirer solicits the shareholders of the target firm in an attempt to obtain the right to vote their shares. The acquiring firm hopes to secure enough proxies to gain control of the board of directors and, in turn, replace the incumbent management.
Management in target firms will typically resist takeover attempts either to get a higher price for the firm or to protect their own self-interests. This can be done a number of ways. Target companies can decrease the likelihood of a takeover though charter amendments. With the staggered board technique, the board of directors is classified into three groups, with only one group elected each year. Thus, the suitor cannot obtain control of the board immediately even though it may have acquired a majority ownership of the target via a tender offer. Under a supermajority amendment, a higher percentage than 50 percent—generally two-thirds or 80 percent—is required to approve a merger.
Other defensive tactics include poison pills and dual class recapitalizations. With poison pills, existing shareholders are issued rights which, if a bidder acquires a certain percentage of the outstanding shares, can be used to purchase additional shares at a bargain price, usually half the market price. Dual class recapitalizations distribute a new class of equity with superior voting rights. This enables the target firm's managers to obtain majority control even though they do not own a majority of the shares.
Other preventative measures occur after an unsolicited offer is made to the target firm. The target may file suit against the bidder alleging violations of antitrust or securities laws. Alternatively, the target may engage in asset and liability restructuring to make it an unattractive target. With asset restructuring, the target purchases assets that the bidder does not want or that will create antitrust problems, or sells off the assets that the suitor desires to obtain. Liability restructuring maneuvers include issuing shares to a friendly third party to dilute the bidder's ownership position or leveraging up the firm through a leveraged recapitalization making it difficult for the suitor to finance the transaction.
Other postoffer tactics involve targeted share repurchases (often termed "greenmail")—in which the target repurchases the shares of an unfriendly suitor at a premium over the current market price—and golden parachutes—which are lucrative supplemental compensation packages for the target firm's management. These packages are activated in the case of a takeover and the subsequent resignations of the senior executives. Finally, the target may employ an exclusionary self-tender. With this tactic, the target firm offers to buy back its own stock at a premium from everyone except the bidder.
A privately owned firm is not subject to unfriendly takeovers. A publicly traded firm "goes private" when a group, usually involving existing management, buys up all the publicly held stock. Such transactions are typically structured as leveraged buyouts (LBOs). LBOs are financed primarily with debt secured by the assets of the target firm.
There is substantial empirical evidence that the shareholders in acquired firms benefit substantially. Gains for this group typically amount to 20 percent in mergers and 30 percent in tender offers above the market prices prevailing a month prior to the merger announcement.
The gains to acquiring firms are difficult to measure. The best evidence suggests that shareholders in bidding firms gain little. Losses in value subsequent to merger announcements are not unusual. This seems to suggest that overvaluation by bidding firms is common. Managers may also have incentives to increase firm size at the potential expense of shareholder wealth. If so, merger activity may happen for noneconomic reasons, to the detriment of shareholders.
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"Business For Sale: No Sure Thing." Inc. July 1999.
Coffee, John C., Jr., Louis Lowenstein, and Susan Rose-Ackerman. Knights, Raiders, and Targets: The Impact of the Hostile Takeover . New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Gaughan, Patrick A. Mergers and Acquisitions . New York: Harper Collins, 1991.
Hoover, Kent. "Bill Would Aid Mergers of Small Businesses." Sacramento Business Journal. July 21, 2000.
Kilpatrick, Christine. "More Owners Put Small Businesses on the Sale Block." San Francisco Business Times. June 9, 2000.
McGarvey, Robert. "Merge Ahead: Before You Go Full-Speed into a Merger, Read This." Entrepreneur. October 1997.
Sherman, Andrew J. Running and Growing Your Business. New York: Random House, 1997.
SEE ALSO: Leveraged Buyout