From Merger Wedding to eHarmony
“Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, and half-shut afterwards.”
– Benjamin Franklin
Stocks share a lot of the same dynamics with dating and marriage. Some may choose to play the field through partnerships and joint ventures, while others may choose to remain independent as eternal bachelors/bachelorettes. Others, however, are willing to take the plunge. Unfortunately some marriages don’t last. But if things don’t work out, there is no need to worry because eHarmony.com (or resident investment bank) will always be there to help find your next perfect match.
Unlucky in Love
An example of a bloody divorce is the mega-merger between AOL Inc. and Time Warner (TWX) in 2000. The relationship was so destructive that investors witnessed AOL’s peak value of $222 billion in December 1999 (Fortune) plummet to around $3 billion today…ooooph!
Compared to some relationships, AOL lasted much longer. In fact Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO) didn’t even get to celebrate a honeymoon with Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) in February 2008 when the behemoth software company offered a +62% premium ($31 per share) for the gigantic portal. Microsoft’s $45 billion cash and stock offer was ruled unworthy by Yahoo’s board, so the company decided to leave Microsoft at the altar. Even after considering Yahoo’s latest price spike on acquisition rumors, Microsoft’s original bid is still almost double Yahoo’s current stock price of $16 per share.
As I discussed in my earlier mergers and acquisitions article (M&A) conditions are ripening with large corporate cash piles, a continued economic recovery, improved capital markets availability, and cheap credit costs (at least for those that qualify). With the clouds slowly lifting in the M&A world, suitors are shaking the trees for more potential opportunities.
While some acquirers may have altruistic intentions in combining companies, some marriages are done for pure gold-digging purposes. Private equity firms Blackstone Group (BX) and Silver Lake are rumored to be circling the Yahoo wagons and courting AOL as a potential partner in a joint bid. Whatever the expectations, if private equity plays a role in a Yahoo bid, the internet company should not become disillusioned with romantic warm and fuzzies – private equity firms like to get straight down to dirty business. Yahoo owns a 35% stake in Yahoo Japan and a 43% interest in leading Chinese e-commerce company, Alibaba Group. If a joint private equity bid were ever to win, I believe there would be a strong impetus to realize shareholder value by carving up these non-operating stakes. Consolidating overhead and streamlining expenses would likely be a top priority as well.
The Perfect Marriage
A “perfect marriage” could almost be called an oxymoron because like any relationship, there is significant work required by both parties. The divorce rate is estimated at around 40-50% in North America (Europe around the same), however mergers even fail at a higher 70% rate, according to Bain and Company study. I would argue successfully integrating larger deals are even more difficult, hampering the success rate even further. Merging two poorly managed companies purely for cost purposes is probably not the best way to go. Crashing two garbage trucks together is not going to create a Ferrari. I wouldn’t go as far as to say Yahoo and AOL are garbage trucks, but they face numerous, substantial challenges. Maybe these two companies are more akin to Mazdas transforming into a Toyota Camry (TM).
From my perspective, if companies really are dead set on engaging in acquisitions, then I urge management teams to focus on smaller digestible deals. Specifically, concentrate on those deals with experienced senior management teams who understand and respect the unique culture of the acquirer. Mergers also often fail due to excessive optimism and overly optimistic assumptions. This is an area in which Warren Buffett excels. Rarely do you observe the Oracle of Omaha overpaying for an acquisition, but rather he patiently waits for his fat pitch, and when it floats over the plate, Buffett is quick to throw out a lowball offer that will dramatically increase the probabilities of long-term merger success (think Geico, Sees Candy, Burlington Northern, etc.).
In the end, a joint relationship may not be forged between Yahoo, AOL and private equity firms, but if talks disintegrate, no need to worry – alternative partnerships can be explored on eHarmony.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in YHOO, MSFT, TWX, BX, BRKA, TM, Alibaba, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.