Archives For takeovers

As has been rumored in the press for a few weeks, today Comcast announced it is considering making a renewed bid for a large chunk of Twenty-First Century Fox’s (Fox) assets. Fox is in the process of a significant reorganization, entailing primarily the sale of its international and non-television assets. Fox itself will continue, but with a focus on its US television business.

In December of last year, Fox agreed to sell these assets to Disney, in the process rejecting a bid from Comcast. Comcast’s initial bid was some 16% higher than Disney’s, although there were other differences in the proposed deals, as well.

In April of this year, Disney and Fox filed a proxy statement with the SEC explaining the basis for the board’s decision, including predominantly the assertion that the Comcast bid (NB: Comcast is identified as “Party B” in that document) presented greater regulatory (antitrust) risk.

As noted, today Comcast announced it is in “advanced stages” of preparing another unsolicited bid. This time,

Any offer for Fox would be all-cash and at a premium to the value of the current all-share offer from Disney. The structure and terms of any offer by Comcast, including with respect to both the spin-off of “New Fox” and the regulatory risk provisions and the related termination fee, would be at least as favorable to Fox shareholders as the Disney offer.

Because, as we now know (since the April proxy filing), Fox’s board rejected Comcast’s earlier offer largely on the basis of the board’s assessment of the antitrust risk it presented, and because that risk assessment (and the difference between an all-cash and all-share offer) would now be the primary distinguishing feature between Comcast’s and Disney’s bids, it is worth evaluating that conclusion as Fox and its shareholders consider Comcast’s new bid.

In short: There is no basis for ascribing a greater antitrust risk to Comcast’s purchase of Fox’s assets than to Disney’s.

Summary of the Proposed Deal

Post-merger, Fox will continue to own Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network, Fox Broadcasting Company, Fox Sports, Fox Television Stations Group, and sports cable networks FS1, FS2, Fox Deportes, and Big Ten Network.

The deal would transfer to Comcast (or Disney) the following:

  • Primarily, international assets, including Fox International (cable channels in Latin America, the EU, and Asia), Star India (the largest cable and broadcast network in India), and Fox’s 39% interest in Sky (Europe’s largest pay TV service).
  • Fox’s film properties, including 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight, and Fox Animation. These would bring along with them studios in Sydney and Los Angeles, but would not include the Fox Los Angeles backlot. Like the rest of the US film industry, the majority of Fox’s film revenue is earned overseas.
  • FX cable channels, National Geographic cable channels (of which Fox currently owns 75%), and twenty-two regional sports networks (RSNs). In terms of relative demand for the two cable networks, FX is a popular basic cable channel, but fairly far down the list of most-watched channels, while National Geographic doesn’t even crack the top 50. Among the RSNs, only one geographic overlap exists with Comcast’s current RSNs, and most of the Fox RSNs (at least 14 of the 22) are not in areas where Comcast has a substantial service presence.
  • The deal would also entail a shift in the companies’ ownership interests in Hulu. Hulu is currently owned in equal 30% shares by Disney, Comcast, and Fox, with the remaining, non-voting 10% owned by Time Warner. Either Comcast or Disney would hold a controlling 60% share of Hulu following the deal with Fox.

Analysis of the Antitrust Risk of a Comcast/Fox Merger

According to the joint proxy statement, Fox’s board discounted Comcast’s original $34.36/share offer — but not the $28.00/share offer from Disney — because of “the level of regulatory issues posed and the proposed risk allocation arrangements.” Significantly on this basis, the Fox board determined Disney’s offer to be superior.

The claim that a merger with Comcast poses sufficiently greater antitrust risk than a purchase by Disney to warrant its rejection out of hand is unsupportable, however. From an antitrust perspective, it is even plausible that a Comcast acquisition of the Fox assets would be on more-solid ground than would be a Disney acquisition.

Vertical Mergers Generally Present Less Antitrust Risk

A merger between Comcast and Fox would be predominantly vertical, while a merger between Disney and Fox, in contrast, would be primarily horizontal. Generally speaking, it is easier to get antitrust approval for vertical mergers than it is for horizontal mergers. As Bruce Hoffman, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition, noted earlier this year:

[V]ertical merger enforcement is still a small part of our merger workload….

There is a strong theoretical basis for horizontal enforcement because economic models predict at least nominal potential for anticompetitive effects due to elimination of horizontal competition between substitutes.

Where horizontal mergers reduce competition on their face — though that reduction could be minimal or more than offset by benefits — vertical mergers do not…. [T]here are plenty of theories of anticompetitive harm from vertical mergers. But the problem is that those theories don’t generally predict harm from vertical mergers; they simply show that harm is possible under certain conditions.

On its face, and consistent with the last quarter century of merger enforcement by the DOJ and FTC, the Comcast acquisition would be less likely to trigger antitrust scrutiny, and the Disney acquisition raises more straightforward antitrust issues.

This is true even in light of the fact that the DOJ decided to challenge the AT&T-Time Warner (AT&T/TWX) merger.

The AT&T/TWX merger is a single data point in a long history of successful vertical mergers that attracted little scrutiny, and no litigation, by antitrust enforcers (although several have been approved subject to consent orders).

Just because the DOJ challenged that one merger does not mean that antitrust enforcers generally, nor even the DOJ in particular, have suddenly become more hostile to vertical mergers.

Of particular importance to the conclusion that the AT&T/TWX merger challenge is of minimal relevance to predicting the DOJ’s reception in this case, the theory of harm argued by the DOJ in that case is far from well-accepted, while the potential theory that could underpin a challenge to a Disney/Fox merger is. As Bruce Hoffman further remarks:

I am skeptical of arguments that vertical mergers cause harm due to an increased bargaining skill; this is likely not an anticompetitive effect because it does not flow from a reduction in competition. I would contrast that to the elimination of competition in a horizontal merger that leads to an increase in bargaining leverage that could raise price or reduce output.

The Relatively Lower Risk of a Vertical Merger Challenge Hasn’t Changed Following the DOJ’s AT&T/Time Warner Challenge

Judge Leon is expected to rule on the AT&T/TWX merger in a matter of weeks. The theory underpinning the DOJ’s challenge is problematic (to say the least), and the case it presented was decidedly weak. But no litigated legal outcome is ever certain, and the court could, of course, rule against the merger nevertheless.

Yet even if the court does rule against the AT&T/TWX merger, this hardly suggests that a Comcast/Fox deal would create a greater antitrust risk than would a Disney/Fox merger.

A single successful challenge to a vertical merger — what would be, in fact, the first successful vertical merger challenge in four decades — doesn’t mean that the courts are becoming hostile to vertical mergers any more than the DOJ’s challenge means that vertical mergers suddenly entail heightened enforcement risk. Rather, it would simply mean that that, given the specific facts of the case, the DOJ was able to make out its prima facie case, and that the defendants were unable to rebut it.  

A ruling for the DOJ in the AT&T/TWX merger challenge would be rooted in a highly fact-specific analysis that could have no direct bearing on future cases.

In the AT&T/TWX case, the court’s decision will turn on its assessment of the DOJ’s argument that the merged firm could raise subscriber prices by a few pennies per subscriber. But as AT&T’s attorney aptly pointed out at trial (echoing the testimony of AT&T’s economist, Dennis Carlton):

The government’s modeled price increase is so negligible that, given the inherent uncertainty in that predictive exercise, it is not meaningfully distinguishable from zero.

Even minor deviations from the facts or the assumptions used in the AT&T/TWX case could completely upend the analysis — and there are important differences between the AT&T/TWX merger and a Comcast/Fox merger. True, both would be largely vertical mergers that would bring together programming and distribution assets in the home video market. But the foreclosure effects touted by the DOJ in the AT&T/TWX merger are seemingly either substantially smaller or entirely non-existent in the proposed Comcast/Fox merger.

Most importantly, the content at issue in AT&T/TWX is at least arguably (and, in fact, argued by the DOJ) “must have” programming — Time Warner’s premium HBO channels and its CNN news programming, in particular, were central to the DOJ’s foreclosure argument. By contrast, the programming that Comcast would pick up as a result of the proposed merger with Fox — FX (a popular, but non-essential, basic cable channel) and National Geographic channels (which attract a tiny fraction of cable viewing) — would be extremely unlikely to merit that designation.

Moreover, the DOJ made much of the fact that AT&T, through DirectTV, has a national distribution footprint. As a result, its analysis was dependent upon the company’s potential ability to attract new subscribers decamping from competing providers from whom it withholds access to Time Warner content in every market in the country. Comcast, on the other hand, provides cable service in only about 35% of the country. This significantly limits its ability to credibly threaten competitors because its ability to recoup lost licensing fees by picking up new subscribers is so much more limited.

And while some RSNs may offer some highly prized live sports programming, the mismatch between Comcast’s footprint and the FOX RSNs (only about 8 of the 22 Fox RSNs are in Comcast service areas) severely limits any ability or incentive the company would have to leverage that content for higher fees. Again, to the extent that RSN programming is not “must-have,” and to the extent there is not overlap between the RSN’s geographic area and Comcast’s service area, the situation is manifestly not the same as the one at issue in the AT&T/TWX merger.

In sum, a ruling in favor of the DOJ in the AT&T/TWX case would be far from decisive in predicting how the agency and the courts would assess any potential concerns arising from Comcast’s ownership of Fox’s assets.

A Comcast/Fox Deal May Entail Lower Antitrust Risk than a Disney/Fox Merger

As discussed below, concerns about antitrust enforcement risk from a Comcast/Fox merger are likely overstated. Perhaps more importantly, however, to the extent these concerns are legitimate, they apply at least as much to a Disney/Fox merger. There is, at minimum, no basis for assuming a Comcast deal would present any greater regulatory risk.

The Antitrust Risk of a Comcast/Fox Merger Is Likely Overstated

The primary theory upon which antitrust enforcers could conceivably base a Comcast/Fox merger challenge would be a vertical foreclosure theory. Importantly, such a challenge would have to be based on the incremental effect of adding the Fox assets to Comcast, and not on the basis of its existing assets. Thus, for example, antitrust enforcers would not be able to base a merger challenge on the possibility that Comcast could leverage NBC content it currently owns to extract higher fees from competitors. Rather, only if the combination of NBC programming with additional content from Fox could create a new antitrust risk would a case be tenable.

Enforcers would be unlikely to view the addition of FX and National Geographic to the portfolio of programming content Comcast currently owns as sufficient to raise concerns that the merger would give Comcast anticompetitive bargaining power or the ability to foreclose access to its content.

Although even less likely, enforcers could be concerned with the (horizontal) addition of 20th Century Fox filmed entertainment to Universal’s existing film production and distribution. But the theatrical film market is undeniably competitive, with the largest studio by revenue (Disney) last year holding only 22% of the market. The combination of 20th Century Fox with Universal would still result in a market share only around 25% based on 2017 revenues (and, depending on the year, not even result in the industry’s largest share).

There is also little reason to think that a Comcast controlling interest in Hulu would attract problematic antitrust attention. Comcast has already demonstrated an interest in diversifying its revenue across cable subscriptions and licensing, broadband subscriptions, and licensing to OVDs, as evidenced by its recent deal to offer Netflix as part of its Xfinity packages. Hulu likely presents just one more avenue for pursuing this same diversification strategy. And Universal has a history (see, e.g., this, this, and this) of very broad licensing across cable providers, cable networks, OVDs, and the like.

In the case of Hulu, moreover, the fact that Comcast is vertically integrated in broadband as well as cable service likely reduces the anticompetitive risk because more-attractive OVD content has the potential to increase demand for Comcast’s broadband service. Broadband offers larger margins (and is growing more rapidly) than cable, and it’s quite possible that any loss in Comcast’s cable subscriber revenue from Hulu’s success would be more than offset by gains in its content licensing and broadband subscription revenue. The same, of course, goes for Comcast’s incentives to license content to OVD competitors like Netflix: Comcast plausibly gains broadband subscription revenue from heightened consumer demand for Netflix, and this at least partially offsets any possible harm to Hulu from Netflix’s success.

At the same time, especially relative to Netflix’s vast library of original programming (an expected $8 billion worth in 2018 alone) and content licensed from other sources, the additional content Comcast would gain from a merger with Fox is not likely to appreciably increase its bargaining leverage or its ability to foreclose Netflix’s access to its content.     

Finally, Comcast’s ownership of Fox’s RSNs could, as noted, raise antitrust enforcers’ eyebrows. Enforcers could be concerned that Comcast would condition competitors’ access to RSN programming on higher licensing fees or prioritization of its NBC Sports channels.

While this is indeed a potential risk, it is hardly a foregone conclusion that it would draw an enforcement action. Among other things, NBC is far from the market leader, and improving its competitive position relative to ESPN could be viewed as a benefit of the deal. In any case, potential problems arising from ownership of the RSNs could easily be dealt with through divestiture or behavioral conditions; they are extremely unlikely to lead to an outright merger challenge.

The Antitrust Risk of a Disney Deal May Be Greater than Expected

While a Comcast/Fox deal doesn’t entail no antitrust enforcement risk, it certainly doesn’t entail sufficient risk to deem the deal dead on arrival. Moreover, it may entail less antitrust enforcement risk than would a Disney/Fox tie-up.

Yet, curiously, the joint proxy statement doesn’t mention any antitrust risk from the Disney deal at all and seems to suggest that the Fox board applied no risk discount in evaluating Disney’s bid.

Disney — already the market leader in the filmed entertainment industry — would acquire an even larger share of box office proceeds (and associated licensing revenues) through acquisition of Fox’s film properties. Perhaps even more important, the deal would bring the movie rights to almost all of the Marvel Universe within Disney’s ambit.

While, as suggested above, even that combination probably wouldn’t trigger any sort of market power presumption, it would certainly create an entity with a larger share of the market and stronger control of the industry’s most valuable franchises than would a Comcast/Fox deal.

Another relatively larger complication for a Disney/Fox merger arises from the prospect of combining Fox’s RSNs with ESPN. Whatever ability or incentive either company would have to engage in anticompetitive conduct surrounding sports programming, that risk would seem to be more significant for undisputed market leader, Disney. At the same time, although still powerful, demand for ESPN on cable has been flagging. Disney could well see the ability to bundle ESPN with regional sports content as a way to prop up subscription revenues for ESPN — a practice, in fact, that it has employed successfully in the past.   

Finally, it must be noted that licensing of consumer products is an even bigger driver of revenue from filmed entertainment than is theatrical release. No other company comes close to Disney in this space.

Disney is the world’s largest licensor, earning almost $57 billion in 2016 from licensing properties like Star Wars and Marvel Comics. Universal is in a distant 7th place, with 2016 licensing revenue of about $6 billion. Adding Fox’s (admittedly relatively small) licensing business would enhance Disney’s substantial lead (even the number two global licensor, Meredith, earned less than half of Disney’s licensing revenue in 2016). Again, this is unlikely to be a significant concern for antitrust enforcers, but it is notable that, to the extent it might be an issue, it is one that applies to Disney and not Comcast.

Conclusion

Although I hope to address these issues in greater detail in the future, for now the preliminary assessment is clear: There is no legitimate basis for ascribing a greater antitrust risk to a Comcast/Fox deal than to a Disney/Fox deal.

Henry Manne first theorized the market for corporate control, but the man who first put the concept into action was Louis E. Wolfson.  I blogged briefly about Wolfson when he died in 2008.  Now you can read more about him in Alan M. Weinberger, What’s in a Name?– The Tale of Louis Wolfson’s Affirmed, 39 Hofstra L. Rev. 645 (2011) (not on SSRN).  Here’s the abstract:

Why would someone choose to name a thoroughbred racehorse “Affirmed” after his conviction for federal securities laws violations had been affirmed on appeal? This inquiry is the basis for exploring the enigmatic life and spectacular career of Louis E. Wolfson, owner and breeder of the last winner of horse racing’s Triple Crown.

Perhaps best known as the central figure in the scandal that resulted in the forced resignation of Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, Wolfson left a sizable footprint on corporate legal history. He has been described as the original corporate raider, the inventor of the market for corporate control through the hostile tender offer, and the founder of the first modern conglomerate. Principal cases involving Wolfson appear in virtually all Corporations and Securities Regulation casebooks. Long the subject of academic study, commentary, and controversy, these decisions continue to be cited as authority for the partial indemnification of officers and directors, and the proposition that controlling persons expose themselves to criminal liability for effecting a distribution of unregistered shares through a broker.

Steve Bainbridge is offering his new book, Directors as Auctioneers: A Concise Guide to Revlon-Land, as a Kindle eBook. Here’s his discussion of the book and of his decision to go the e-book route.  I’ve bought it already and presumably will have it when I turn my Kindle on.

Steve’s reasoning is plausible:  he gets more money than for law review articles, controls the marketing and price, and keeps all the proceeds instead of just royalties. He doesn’t get any quality signal, but at his career stage doesn’t need another one. His Revlon book offers him an opportunity to “update, expand, and augment older work on Revlon and offer up a new and improved analysis in a different package” that provides analysis relevant to some recent Delaware decisions. 

I would add that the format provides a marginal incentive that could produce scholarship that might not otherwise get produced.  This is what markets are supposed to do.

Needless to say, I’m interested in how this works out for Steve.  Given rapid developments in publishing, I expect that this is just the first stage of an interesting evolutionary process.

The so-called “Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act” was supposed to fix the problems that led to the financial bust.  Of course, that would require some understanding of what, exactly, those problems were, which Congress lacked.  The Act did little to fix the credit raters or the derivatives market that surely had something to do with the crash.  But it did include countless ill-considered provisions and rules lying in wait behind studies.  I’ve already commented (here and here) on the Act’s unwarranted federal intrusion into aspects of corporate governance that had little to do with the meltdown. And I’ve noted the Act’s contribution to hobbling initial public offerings.

Yale’s Jon Macey comments in today’s WSJ on the potential fallout from one of D-F’s most buried little gems:  Section 929R(a)’s authorization to the SEC to reduce the period for reporting 5% share acquisitions from ten days to “such shorter time as the Commission may establish by rule.”  Marty Lipton’s takeover defense firm, Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, has seized on this provision to propose that the SEC reduce that period to one day. 

Alerting the market to a potential impending bid raises share prices and therefore the takeover’s overall cost. This would add to the effects of a long-term trend at both the state and federal level of allocating increasing shares of the potential gains from takeover-induced governance reforms to the incumbent shareholders and away from the bidder. This is fine for the shareholders, given the existence of a bid.  But if you increase the price of bids you’re likely to decrease the supply.  Fewer bids = more power to incumbent managers. 

As Macey notes:

Shareholders benefit from the reforms of corporate governance initiated by these activist investors. So does the economy generally, because the overall economy performs better when companies perform better. But managers are not so fond of this process because activist investors push incumbent senior managers hard to improve their performance. Occasionally they even fire them.

Since incumbent managers sometimes lose to activist investors in fair corporate elections, their preferred strategy for dealing with them is to hire legal talent and team up with friendly regulators to make new rules and to concoct anti-takeover devices like poison pills.

Macey observes that the success of these efforts explains “why the market for corporate control is relatively moribund, particularly when compared to the robust markets of the past.”

One would think that true financial reform would seek to have the opposite effect — to increase the pressure on incumbent managers, whose comfortable entrenchment helped them ignore huge risks that ended up destroying some big companies.

The roots of the W-L initiative lie in two other developments. First, as Macey notes, “changes in technology and other advances have made it possible for investors to buy shares and to file reports with the SEC in less time than before.”  Thus, incumbent managers fear losing some of the edge they’ve accumulated over bidders.  But this just returns to the question of how great that edge should be.

Second, and more important for present purposes, Steve Davidoff notes the role here of yet another formerly obscure Dodd-Frank provision, §766(e), which empowers the SEC to count cash-settled derivatives in their holdings for 13D purposes.  Davidoff suggests the real problem here isn’t reporting, but the fact that bank parties to these transactions hedge their positions by buying target shares. They can then vote those shares although they lacks a real economic interest in the company — i.e., the “empty voting” problem.  Davidoff suggests the solution is simply preventing the hedged parties from voting these shares.  Of course this would open for analysis the large can of “empty voting” worms.  As Kobayashi and I have written, this problem is much less obvious and more complex than meets the eye.  

Davidoff has discussed the interest group battle over the W-L proposal:

Corporate America is divided over the Wachtell petition. According to people close to the firm, an earlier draft of the petition was circulated among seven law firms, a working group of well-known corporate law firms commenting on Dodd-Frank initiatives. But the other law firms begged off signing the petition. * * * Wachtell portrays itself as a firm that favors management. It actively represents companies against hostile takeovers and activist shareholders but appears to have only one large hedge fund activist client* * *

Wachtell appears to have the ear of the S.E.C. Michele M. Anderson, the agency’s chief of mergers and acquisitions, said last month that the S.E.C. staff was planning to recommend that the reporting period be shortened.

The more basic issue here is the battle for control of corporate governance law between the states, who compete for business, and the federal legislators and regulators, who collect rents from powerful interest groups.  On the other side of the takeover argument from Wachtell are those who are pushing increased application of federal law to restrict state law regulation of takeovers.  I’ve argued that these moves are also ill-advised.

And then there is what Davidoff refers to as the “larger war against hedge funds.”  He sees the SEC as

desperately struggling for relevance. Hedge funds are rich but often unpopular. Wachtell, through its focus on protecting shareholders rather than corporate boards, is using the agency’s struggles to push through its agenda.

This might have something to do with a certain insider trading trial going on in NYC.

To make a long story short, rather than solve the problems that led to the financial crisis, Dodd-Frank included myriad buried treasures that are now serving as platforms on which interest groups and federal agencies can battle for control of large corporations.  In the case of 929R and 766(e), “financial reform” may well lead to more federalization of corporate governance law and more power for incumbent managers — exactly what the financial crisis demonstrated we do not need.

The Airgas decision

Larry Ribstein —  16 February 2011

So Chancellor Chandler, in deciding Airgas, preserved the board’s power to decide when to sell the company.  If a company’s shareholders don’t like it, they need to replace the board.  If shareholders generally don’t like it they need to change the Delaware statute.

In upholding the board’s power, and confirming what most astute observers knew the law likely was, despite very strong facts the other way (no “coercion” or other obvious reason why the pill was needed), the court preserved the stability of Delaware law. Hard facts don’t have to make bad law.  Although the Air Products bid was $70, the shares had been trading around $63.  They fell from $63.73 to $61 after the decision, suggesting clarification of a small residual amount of uncertainty.

The decision illustrates one reason why Subramanian, et al, were wrong to suggest the Delaware anti-takeover statute is preempted by the Williams Act.  If the statute, why not the pill — and other aspects of Delaware law that block takeovers?  Here’s my response along these lines to the Subramanian et al argument.

Of course Congress theoretically could pass a law that explicitly preempts poison pills.  Dodd-Frank’s intrusion into corporate governance makes this plausible.  But such additional federal interference would not be wise.

Bebchuk, Cohen and Wang have posted Staggered Boards and the Wealth of Shareholders: Evidence from a Natural Experiment.  Here’s the abstract:

While staggered boards are known to be negatively correlated with firm valuation, such association might be due to staggered boards either bringing about lower firm value or merely being the product of the tendency of low-value firms to have staggered boards. In this paper, we use a natural experiment setting to identify how market participants view the effect of staggered boards on firm value. In particular, we focus on two recent rulings, separated by several weeks, that had opposite effects on the antitakeover force of the staggered boards of affected companies: (i) an October 2010 ruling by the Delaware Chancery Court approving the legality of shareholder-adopted bylaws that weaken the antitakeover force of a staggered board by moving the company’s annual meeting up from later parts of the calendar year to January, and (ii) the subsequent decision by the Delaware Supreme Court to overturn the Chancery Court ruling and invalidate such bylaws.

We find evidence consistent with the hypothesis that the Chancery Court ruling increased the value of companies significantly affected by the rulings –namely, companies with a staggered board and an annual meeting in later parts of the calendar year –and that the Supreme Court ruling produced a reduction in the value of these companies that was of similar magnitude (but opposite sign) to the value increase generated by the Chancery Court ruling. The identified positive and negative effects were most pronounced for firms for which control contests are especially relevant due to low industry-adjusted Tobin’s Q, low industry-adjusted return on assets, or relatively small firm size. Our findings are consistent with market participants’ viewing staggered boards as bringing about a reduction in firm value. The findings are thus consistent with institutional investors’ standard policies of voting in favor of proposals to repeal classified boards, and with the view that the ongoing process of board declassification in public firms will enhance shareholder value.

The paper reports on the Airgas/Air Products takeover battle.  Interestingly, it relies heavily on Steve Davidoff’s excellent reporting on this contest.

I have not studied the empirical test closely.  Taking the results at face value, I have a couple of observations.  First, although this evidence helps persuade Bebchuk et al that declassification “will enhance shareholder value,” proponents of strong boards who distrust markets driven by arbs and hedge funds would disagree.  I think the ultimate answer is best given by the corporate contract.  As interpreted by the Delaware courts in Airgas, that contract (reading the corporate charter in conjunction with the statute) favors strong board control.  See generally my venerable but still relevant article on interpreting the corporate contract in this context, Takeover Defenses and the Corporate Contract, 78 Georgetown Law Journal 71 (1989). This contract gives boards the power to, for example, maintain management continuity and long-run vision, at the possible cost of foregoing agency cost discipline. 

Second, there is, of course, another way — the uncorporation which, as I discuss in my Rise of the Uncorporation, may combine strong protection from takeovers with other mechanisms for disciplining managers.  For a recent article focusing on staggered boards in a particular type of uncorporation, see Corporate Governance and Performance in the Market for Corporate Control: The Case of REITs (no free online version available):  

We examine 132 mergers and acquisitions by Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) during 1997-2006 and explore the relationship between acquirer external and internal corporate governance mechanisms and announcement abnormal returns. We argue that in regulated industries with absent active takeover market, the importance of outside governance mechanisms is diminished and substituted by internal governance controls. We focus on the REIT industry. We find that bidder returns are higher for REITs with smaller boards, with more experienced CEOs, but with shorter tenure. Acquirers’ announcement returns are also significantly and positively related to higher ownership by their CEOs and board directors. We find no significant relationship between presence of staggered board and abnormal bidder returns, which supports our hypothesis that anti-takeover defense measured have reduced importance for REITs.

Abercrombie goes to Ohio

Larry Ribstein —  28 December 2010

Steve Davidoff has the story, and it’s an interesting exercise in corporate contracting complicated by jurisdictional choice.

Abercrombie’s proposed reincorporation is essentially a takeover defense.  Unlike Delaware, Abercrombie’s current state of incorporation, Ohio  

  • Has a business combination statute that’s triggered by a 10% acquisition rather than 15% as in Delaware.
  • Has a control share acquisition statute requiring shareholder approval of an acquisition of shares that would put the acquirer over the statutory level of control.
  • Would disenfranchise shareholders (i.e., arbs) who acquire a more than .5% block after an acquisition proposal.
  • Does not have a “Revlon rule” subjecting director decisions to sell the company to a higher scrutiny level.
  • Is Abercrombie’s home state, and therefore a friendly forum in a takeover battle.

This situation illustrates how jurisdictional choice makes contractual what would otherwise seem to be mandatory takeover rules.

Is it a problem that Abercrombie is changing the original statutory “bargain” based on Delaware incorporation its shareholders may have relied on?  Steve notes that Abercrombie proposed the reincorporation after the announcement of buyouts for competitors J. Crew and Jo-Ann Stores which may have put Abercrombie in play. 

It would be interesting to do an event study on Abercrombie shares. I wonder if they (1) took a hit from reducing the probability of a bid; (2) got a boost because any takeover will be after an auction and possibly at a higher price; (3) got a boost because the move communicates information about the likelihood of a bid; (4) didn’t move because a reincorporation was already priced in; or (5) didn’t move because the shareholders still  have to vote on the reincorporation, and proxy advisors may weigh in against it.

Finally, was there adequate disclosure to shareholders about the reason for and implications of the move?  Does it matter if there were enough sophisticated or well-advised institutional shareholders to help ensure an informed vote?

The bottom line is that the Law Market is a significant part of the transactional environment.

Last fall Guhan Subramanian, Steve Herscovici and Brian Barbetta (“SHB”) posted a paper claiming that Delaware’s antitakeover statute (Delaware GCL Section 203) was preempted by the Williams Act because it did not leave hostile bidders the “meaningful opportunity for success” required by three 1988 federal district courts which had upheld the Delaware law back in 1988. Specifically, SHB concluded:

Using a new sample of all hostile takeover bids against Delaware targets that were announced between 1988 and 2008 that were subject to Section 203 (n=60), we find that no hostile bidder in the past nineteen years has been able to avoid the restrictions imposed by Section 203 by going from less than 15% to more than 85% in its tender offer. At the very least, this finding indicates that the empirical proposition that the federal courts relied upon to uphold Section 203’s constitutionality is no longer valid. While it remains possible that courts would nevertheless uphold Section 203’s constitutionality on different grounds, the evidence would seem to suggest that the constitutionality of Section 203 is up for grabs. This Article offers specific changes to the Delaware statute that would preempt the constitutional challenge. If instead Section 203 were to fall on constitutional grounds, as Delaware’s prior antitakeover statute did in 1986, it would also have implications for similar antitakeover statutes in thirty-two other U.S. states, which along with Delaware collectively cover 92% of all U.S. corporations.

SHB has now been published in The Business Lawyer with several responses, including mine, Preemption as Micromanagement. Here’s the abstract of my paper:

Guhan Subramanian, Steven Herscovici & Brian Barbetta, Is Delaware’s Antitakeover Statute Unconstitutional? Evidence from 1988–2008 , 65 BUS. LAW. 685 (2010) (“SHB”), argues that the constitutionality of the Delaware takeover statute is “up for grabs” because it denies bidders the “meaningful opportunity for success” three Delaware district court opinions require to avoid preemption by the Williams Act. However, this comment on SHB argues that, even assuming the applicable federal cases might be construed to support SHB’s conclusion, courts almost certainly would not follow this approach once they saw, with the aid of SHB’s analysis, the extent to which it requires courts to micromanage state corporate law. Moreover, from a policy standpoint, this micromanagement could have a significant negative effect on the development of state law. In short, rather than providing an argument for preempting the Delaware statute, SHB’s analysis demonstrates why it is important to avoid this result.

SHB respond to the comments, including mine (most footnotes omitted):

Professor Ribstein argues that “[i]t would be inconsistent with [the Delaware trilogy’s] reliance on the legislature’s judgment to invalidate the statute based on circumstances arising after the legislature had applied its judgment.” We know of no principle in constitutional law, nor does Ribstein offer one, suggesting that when the legislature makes a constitutional assessment, and a court later acknowledges that assessment, the constitutional question becomes untouchable. Ribstein states that courts “did not necessarily contemplate that plaintiffs could return to court more than a generation after the [Delaware trilogy],” but this is precisely what the Delaware trilogy envisioned.22 It should be remembered that Delaware passed its first antitakeover statute in 1976 and took it off the books in 1987 because it was likely unconstitutional. It is not obvious why Ribstein’s hypothesized statute of limitations on constitutional claims should run longer than eleven years but shorter than twenty-two.

 22 See SHB, supra note 1, at ___ (citing relevant cases). Professor Ribstein also states that “SHB suggest that the poison pill itself avoids preemption.” Ribstein, supra note 16, at ___. We do not suggest this in our Article; therefore the “attempted distinction” between Section 203 and the pill that Ribstein criticizes, id. at ___, is not a distinction that we try to make. Ribstein then criticizes our Section 203 analysis because (he argues) if it were correct it would call into question defenses of unquestioned constitutional validity, such as the staggered board. See id. at ___. In fact, there is a natural distinction between transactional defenses, such as Section 203 and the pill, and other corporate governance provisions, such as the staggered board. See, e.g., CTS Corp. v Dynamics Corp. of Am., 481 U.S. 69, 99 (1987) (White, J., dissenting) (describing the “fundamental distinction” between transactional defenses such as the Indiana antitakeover statute and other corporate governance provisions, such as cumulative voting and staggered boards).

I do not, in fact, argue for “a statute of limitations.” Rather, my point is that any approach to the Supremacy Clause that would imply a continuing and detailed federal judicial power to review the entire body of state corporate law from a single federal statute would amount to a quite significant federal intrusion into a traditionally state-dominated area. Indeed, SHB call attention to this effect by their attempts to distinguish the poison pill, staggered board provisions and Delaware Section 203.

The SHB analysis is particularly uncalled for given a far less intrusive alternative which the Supreme Court suggested more than 25 years ago – that is, a presumption against preemption of state regulation of internal corporate governance. This was the point I made in discussing SHB’s article when it first appeared last year:

I’m skeptical of the authors’ unconstitutionality claim. Notably, Section 203 is part of the Delaware’s corporate statute, and therefore an integral part of its regulation of internal corporate governance, like its jurisprudence on the poison pill. This is important because, as Erin O’Hara and I explain in The Law Market (p. 126, footnote omitted): “Although the U.S. Constitution probably does not forbid a state from regulating the internal governance of a firm that is incorporated elsewhere, it may confer some extra regulatory power on the incorporating state. In CTS Corp. v. Dynamics Corp. of America, the Court reasoned that “no principle of corporation law and practice is more firmly established than a State’s authority to regulate domestic corporations, including the authority to define the voting rights of shareholders.”  This “authority” in CTS allowed the incorporating state to regulate the governance of firms based in other states, consistent with the Commerce Clause, and to preserve a state corporate law provision notwithstanding a potentially preemptive federal law, under the Supremacy Clause.  

The dangers of superbroad implied preemption of state corporate law are particularly salient in light of the imminent adoption of federal financial reform, as I discussed a few weeks ago:

Although none of the [corporate governance provisions in the Dodd bill] is individually earth-shaking, they cumulatively touch many major aspects of corporate governance formerly left to contract and state law.  This bill thus clearly adds to the framework for federal takeover of internal governance that SOX established. The overall effect is that it will be increasingly difficult to demark an area left exclusively for state law. This leaves little “firebreak” to protect against judicial incursions in the spaces not yet covered by explicit federal provisions.  This could ultimately profoundly affect the relationship between federal and state law regarding business associations. 

A generation ago the Supreme Court could say that “no principle of corporation law and practice is more firmly established than a State’s authority to regulate domestic corporations, including the authority to define the voting rights of shareholders.” CTS Corp. v. Dynamics Corp. of America, 481 U.S. 69, 89 (1987). 

Erin O’Hara and I have argued that this separation between federal and state spheres does and should affect the scope of implied preemption of state law by federal statutes.  Thus, when the Court held that state securities actions were preempted by the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act, it emphasized “[t]he magnitude of the federal interest in protecting the integrity and efficient operation of the market for nationally traded securities.” Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc. v. Dabit, 547 U.S. 71, 78 (2006). See also my article on Dabit.

However, we noted that “[m]any federal ‘securities’ laws reach deep into the kind of internal governance issues covered by the [internal affairs doctrine].” Thus, corporate internal affairs are only “relatively safe from federal preemption” and internal affairs is not “a constitutional boundary, as shown by the continuing forward march of federal corporation law.”

Under the Dodd bill, the forward march picks up the pace.  

The combination of increasing federal regulation of corporate governance, the cumulative preemption effects inherent in this regulation, and the extremely broad view of preemption that SHB endorse would effectively annihilate state corporate law. We can only hope that Congress eventually comes to its senses. We shouldn’t add to the political mess by inviting the courts to join in the destruction.