April 7, 2008, 9:00 am
Posted by Heidi Moore, DealJournal, WSJ.com:
It is a widespread human trait that people who do something fast are prouder of the speed of the performance rather than its often imperfect quality. So it is with the merger boom of 2006 and 2007, which, it has become clear, has left a legacy of hastily drafted, inexactly worded merger agreements that are now in the hands of the inevitable cleanup crew — lawyers and judges who will puzzle out how to make these agreements more specific in the future.
That’s the lesson from the 20th Annual Tulane Corporate Law Institute Conference, where it became clear that merger battles have moved out of the hands of investment bankers who strike the deals and into those of lawyers who enforce them; out of the boardrooms and into courtrooms, where legal eagles will debate the finer points of merger contracts. Most attendees predicted a dropoff in the number of deals, leaving plenty of time to pore over the minutiae of old ones: in the words of Delaware Court of Chancery Vice Chancellor Leo E. Strine Jr., “Wouldn’t the solution be to scrape up one deal and spend the year getting the terms right?”
What was clear at the annual M&A confab is that the current spate of disputed mergers is beyond current laws and precedents, and calls for new court decisions that will set the stage for the future. One valuable lesson to all who were there is that being specific and exact can save you more time than writing an agreement that is broadly worded and will end you up in court. Here are a few issues you can expect to be hammered out this year.
Specific performance: “Specific performance” is just legalese that governs whether a court can force one party to a contract to follow through, or — it helps to think about it this way — perform on a specific aspect of its contract. In the pending $19.4 billion Clear Channel Communications buyout, specific performance is in dispute in a New York court as Thomas H. Lee Partners and Bain Capital try to force six lenders to fund the deal. The lenders argue that New York courts can’t enforce a lending agreement, but can only award money damages.
Forum selection: This is more legalese that just means where a case is heard. Traditionally, the Delaware courts have had a near-monopoly on merger law, because the small state houses the physical headquarters of so few businesses that it can act as an impartial referee. (Many major companies are incorporated in Delaware, however, to have the benefit of those impartial laws.)But there might be a trend towards merger partners seeking the home-court advantage in their home states. The Clear Channel deal also will provide a new testing ground for the Texas courts which historically haven’t been very active in determining the course of mergers. In a panel at Tulane, Strine quipped about “some interesting developments from the land of brisket,” a line which drew a laugh from lawyers uncomfortable with states other than Delaware calling the shots. In the Texas Clear Channel case the company and private-equity firms are suing the banks for tortious interference, or interfering with their contract.
Reverse breakup fees: Reverse breakup fees, in which a buyer pays a fee to the seller to get out of a deal, is another legacy of Clear Channel as well as other buyouts including that of SLM Inc., or Sallie Mae. Tulane professor Eileen Nowicki questioned whether these breakup fees are high enough to discourage buyers from walking away from deals.
Return of the MAC: Material adverse effect clauses, or MACs, were at play in the defunct buyout of Harman International industries. These provisions need to be more specific to allow for changes in the market or an industry, argued Cravath Swaine & Moore partner Faiza Saeed. Right now, they are so broadly written as to be nearly useless.
Financing agreements: Unsurprisingly, these will also come under close scrutiny, argued Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton partner Meme Peponis and Citigroup banker Christina Mohr, and sellers could start providing their own financing to attract buyers for a deal. In addition, more private-equity firms could follow the lead of Hellman & Friedman, which cut out the middlemen –investment banks — by approaching lenders and hedge funds itself to finance the acquisitions of Goodman Global Holdings and Getty Images.
The investment bankers who advise on mergers, for their part, will stay busy with smaller deals and less complicated ones, according to Mark Shafir, global co-head of M&A for Lehman Brothers Holdings. He predicted that merger activity would be much quieter as private-equity firms reduce their buying by up to 80%, and “strategic,” or corporate buyers, cut back 30% this year. Overall, Wall Street investment banks, private-equity firms and their lawyers will continue to be involved in a vast legal postmortem, seeking to make sense of the merger boom that just passed and setting the legal precedents for the booms inevitably to come.