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April 10, 2019

Enhanced Scrutiny on the Buy-Side

[Co-written with the Hon. J. Travis Laster and cross-posted from Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation]

Editor’s Note: Afra Afsharipour is Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and professor of law at UC Davis School of Law; The Honorable J. Travis Laster is vice chancellor of the Delaware Court of Chancery. This post is based on their recent article, published in the Georgia Law Review, and is part of the Delaware law series; links to other posts in the series are available here.

Empirical studies of acquisitions consistently find that public company bidders often overpay for targets, imposing significant losses on bidder shareholders. Research also indicates that the losses represent true wealth destruction in the aggregate and not simply a wealth transfer from bidder shareholders to target shareholders.

Numerous studies have connected bidder overpayment with managerial agency costs and behavioral biases that reflect management self-interest. Agency theorists in law, management, and finance argue that agency costs explain bidder overpayment—that is management pursues wealth-destroying acquisitions at the expense of shareholders. Numerous studies provide evidence that acquisitions offer significant benefits to bidder management—particularly bidder CEOs—in the form of increased compensation, power, and prestige. For example, studies have found that CEOs are financially rewarded for acquisitions in the form of large, new options and grants, but are not similarly rewarded for other types of major transactions. A second, complementary contributor to bidder overpayment is behavioral bias, such as overconfidence and ego gratification. Managers may overestimate their ability to price a target accurately or their ability to integrate its operations and generate synergies. They may also get caught up in the competitive dynamic of a bidding contest, leading to the winner’s curse. Studies have shown that social factors can undermine decision making and lead to poor acquisitions. These factors include the existence of extensive business or educational ties between the managers of the bidder and target firms, the presence of fewer independent directors on the bidder’s board, and the desire to keep up with peers.

For purposes of corporate law, these concerns implicate the behavior of fiduciaries—the officers and directors of the acquiring entity—and raise questions about whether those fiduciaries are fulfilling their fiduciary duties.

Beginning in the 1980s, to address circumstances that present a high risk of self-interest, the Delaware courts began to develop an intermediate standard of review known as enhanced scrutiny. The situations evaluated in these cases did not encompass the flagrant self-dealing often observed in traditional duty of loyalty cases, but instead involved the potential risk of soft conflicts and fiduciary self-interest. Much of Delaware’s enhanced scrutiny jurisprudence was developed through scrutiny of decisions by sell-side fiduciaries. We argue that the enhanced scrutiny framework has become a means of screening for improperly motivated actions “when the realities of the decision-making context can subtly undermine the decisions of even independent and disinterested directors.” (Reis v. Hazelett Strip-Casting Corp., 28 A.3d 442, 457 (Del. Ch. 2011)).

In the article, we expand on three primary reasons to extend enhanced scrutiny to decisions of buy-side fiduciaries. Most importantly, the core conflict-derived rationale that supports applying enhanced scrutiny to actions by sell-side fiduciaries applies equally on the buy-side M&A scenarios. The decision to undertake a significant acquisition differs from other routine business judgments taken by directors and officers. As in the sell-side scenario, acquisitions are often large transactions that are plagued by subtle personal interests that affect the decision-making process. Empirical evidence suggests that in acquisitions, particularly significant acquisitions, the business judgment of boards is contaminated by the interests of managers on whom boards of directors rely. The board’s judgment is even more contaminated in public company acquisitions where the potential for realization of the value of the transaction is uncertain, but the prestige and compensation connected with purchasing another public company is high.

In addition, the sell-side concern that contingently compensated advisors may magnify the confounding incentives faced by senior managers applies to the buy-side as well. Like potential sellers, potential acquirers regularly hire investment bankers under contingency fee arrangements, which gives the bankers powerful financial incentives to pursue and close deals. Unlike on the sell-side, where the acquisition of a client and the resulting disappearance of a source of business may mitigate the advisor’s eagerness to support a sale, similar relationships on the buy-side reinforce the financial incentive. A longstanding advisor’s personal relationship with management may give the advisor additional reason to support an acquisition that management favors, particularly if a successful acquisition may lead to a bigger company that will purchase more companies in the future.

The real-world decision-making context in which boards operate also supports extending enhanced scrutiny to buy-side decisions. At present, there is reason to suspect that without a jurisprudential prod like enhanced scrutiny, directors may not be sufficiently involved in the buy-side acquisition process—just as they were less involved in the sell-side acquisition process before the systemic shock of cases such as Van Gorkom and Revlon. Descriptive accounts indicate that boards are reluctant to become deeply involved in acquisitions, preferring to leave the process in the hands of management and their advisors, with the board restricting itself to advisory and oversight roles. Although the board theoretically retains ultimate approval authority, once management and its advisors begin to feel committed to a deal and have expended significant resources to move forward on a transaction, abandoning plans can be quite difficult.

Although doctrinally coherent, we caution that extending enhanced scrutiny to the buy-side presents several concerns. Most significantly, applying enhanced scrutiny to buy-side decisions would open the door to well-documented stockholder litigation pathologies that have undermined the effectiveness of the sell-side regime. In recent years, the Delaware courts have strived to lessen the impact of these pathologies. One powerful intervention has been to lower the standard of review from enhanced scrutiny to the business judgment rule if the transaction receives fully informed stockholder approval. Logically, this innovation also would apply to bidder fiduciaries.

It seems likely, therefore, that a principal consequence of applying enhanced scrutiny to bidder decisions would be to induce more buy-side stockholder votes. There are substantial reasons to believe that buy-side stockholder votes would be an effective tool to limit the bidder overpayment phenomenon. And recent empirical literature finds that voting by stockholders can provide an important counterbalance to guard against the self-interest and biases that lead to bidder overpayment.

On balance, extending enhanced scrutiny to decisions by buy-side fiduciaries should lead to a superior regime in which stockholders can provide a meaningful check on bidder overpayment.

The complete article is available for download here.

 

January 20, 2017

Serving as Visiting Scholar at National Chiao-Tung University in Taiwan

I had the honor of serving as a visiting scholar at National Chiao-Tung University, Taiwan during the week of January 8th. My visit was coordinated by Professor Chien-Chung Lin, who has twice visited UC Davis School of Law to present papers at the American Society of Comparative Law (ASCL), Younger Comparativists Committee (YCC) Workshop on Comparative Business and Financial Law. Taiwanese corporate law scholars such as Professor Lin have been doing excellent work especially in the area of comparative corporate law, so I was very much looking forward to interacting with some of them.

I began my visit with a fabulous lunch organized by Professor Lin and our own UC Davis JD student, Oscar Yang (himself a 2016 graduate of our LLM program). Oscar and Professor Lin had graciously invited leading Taiwanese lawyers for the lunch, including Prosecutor Jawyang Huang, Taipei District Prosecutors Office. Mr. Huang has been a visiting scholar at Yale University School of Law and was Oscar's supervisor in the Office of Trade Negotiations, in charge of WTO dispute settlement cases. We were joined by two of Oscar's former colleagues who were both fabulous company, Ms. Jenny Van, Senior Legal Adviser in Office of Trade Negotiations and Mr. Jason Lai, Secretary to the Director-General of Bureau of Foreign Trade.  It was a terrific lunch at one of Taipei's most popular restaurants, Din Tai Fung. After the lunch Mr. Huang gave me a fascinating tour of the Taipei Judicial Building, where I was able to observe a few trials that were being conducted. The efficiency and order at the judicial building was quite impressive.

After the first day in Taipei, Professor Lin took me to Hsinchu, one of the educational centers of Taiwan. The city has several prestigious universities, including National Chiao Tung University and National Tsing Hua University. Hsinchu is also an economic and technology hub in Taiwan with an impressive science and technology industrial park. The science and technology park is home to hundreds of high technology companies including world-renowned firms in the semiconductor space such as TSMC and UMC. Professor Lin gave me a tour of the technology park and given my prior corporate practice experience in the semiconductor space I was quite excited to see the place!

In Hsnichu, I gave three lectures at the two law schools there.

  1. Redefining Corporate Purpose: An International Perspective, at the Institute of Law for Science & Technology, College of Technology Management, National Tsing Hua University in Hsinchu, Taiwan.
  2. Deal Structure and Minority Shareholders, at the School of Law at National Chiao-Tung University, Taiwan
  3. Legal Transplants in the Law of the Deal: M&A Agreements in India at the School of Law at National Chiao-Tung University, Taiwan


Lecturing at NTHU

My visit to National Tsing Hua University was coordinated by Professor Robert Tsai, who is trained as an attorney in both Taiwan and the U.S. The lectures were well-attended, and the audience of professors and law students asked excellent questions.

I also had the opportunity to visit the Taiwan Stock Exchange to learn more about the significant corporate governance initiatives undertaken in Taiwan. I had an informative meeting at the Taiwan Stock Exchange with Mr. Joe Tsun Cheng (Senior Vice President, Corporate Governance Department) and Ms. Tracy Chen (Associate, Corporate Governance), as well as meeting Mr. Lih Chung Chien, Senior Executive Vice President of the Taiwan Stock Exchange. At the meeting we exchanged views on corporate governance initiatives undertaken in Asia, and I detailed some of my scholarly work on the trajectory and possible outcomes of the corporate governance reforms undertaken in India over the last decade. I really enjoyed the intellectual engagement with the professors, lawyers and law students I had the privilege to meet.

Professor Lin had also kindly arranged many opportunities for me to experience the beauty and culture of Taiwan, including visits traditional tea houses, temples and the CKS Memorial Hall and Liberty Square, an afternoon at beautiful hot springs outside of Taipei, a culinary adventure with law students at one of Taipei's fabulous night markets, a tour of the National Palace Museum, several informative walks around the different districts in Taipei, and more delicious meals than I can count.  I could easily have spent weeks enjoying all that Taiwan has to offer from its vibrant coffee culture to its elegant tea houses and lush country side, all topped off by the generous hospitality and friendliness of its people.

If it is not already clear, the trip to Taiwan was truly inspiring, and I look forward to future visits!