COVID-19 and M&A: Reshaping The Deal Making Process

BY HARSH KUMRA AND HARSH MITTAL, FIFTH-YEAR STUDENTS AT AMITY LAW SCHOOL, DELHI (GGS IP UNIVERSITY)

COVID-19 has strongly affected the M&A scenario in India. Corporates are facing difficulties in going through deals due to various factors led by economic deterioration by lockdown. Some of the thrusting factors for business decisions regarding such transactions are changes in business sentiment, valuation concerns as well as liquidity constraints due to reduced lending by banks especially after suspension of IBC. For April 2020, Grant Thornton India’s deal tracker reported a 37% fall in aggregate M&A volumes and 22% fall in aggregate Private Equity deals compared to April 2019 and March 2020. However, the deal activity across different industries such as Telecommunications, Healthcare and Consumer Staples has carried on despite lockdown restrictions and COVID-19 will give rise to more opportunities in M&A sector.   

This article addresses certain key issues and concerns that the companies have had to focus on due to the ongoing pandemic and it looks at the future of deal making process.

Deal Considerations

An important concern here would be to decide the kind of deal the companies are willing to enter into. Several factors will play a role in coming to this decision – valuation concerns, lending ability of banks and financial institutions, liquidity crunch faced by the company etc. In India, it is the inveterate mindset of companies to opt for a cash deal, given the fact that they are easier and offer lesser hurdles as compared to its counterpart. However, the times have changed substantially, and on this verge, companies have had to use their cash reserves on a number of other operations and to keep their business going. While cash-rich companies have been able to enter-into M&A transactions easily, the same has not been the case for most companies who require external financing. Additionally, in light of the recent changes and amendments, the lending capacity of banks and financial institutions has been impaired to some extent. The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016 has been suspended and the RBI announced a special COVID-19 Regulatory Package through which –  it allowed rescheduling of payments; lenders have been permitted to defer the recovery of interest in respect of cash credit and overdraft facilities and lenders were allowed to give a three month moratorium on term loans.

With this being said, the companies would try to rely more on stock deals and the buyer would be able to keep its cash reserves for other operations. This will also help the companies and its shareholders in saving the tax component in the sense that they may save on payment of transfer taxes. Companies might also consider investing using hybrid instruments featuring both cash and stock. The market is likely to see new forms of hybrid instruments. In the deal of JSW Energy, acquisition of Jindal Steel and Power witnessed such a structure combining both asset sale and share acquisition. However, the deal was called off by JSW Energy before it could be closed. A report published by the International Financial Law Review states that such hybrid structures provide the necessary balance between the regulatory constraints and commercial objectives.

Further, some companies might prefer slump sale to avoid the extra hassles of due diligence and approvals from minority shareholders. This could be beneficial for buyers as the exposure to unknown liabilities is comparatively lesser and hence, the buyer need not expend much time on due diligence.

Regulatory Framework

With the ongoing pandemic still in place, India has seen regulators stepping in time and again to do their best to limit its impact on the economy. If we look at the measures that have been taken, we could say that the regulatory environment of our country is trying to facilitate the deal making process.

The regulators such as Securities and Exchange Board of India (‘SEBI’), Ministry of Corporate Affairs (‘MCA’), Reserve Bank of India (‘RBI’) and Competition Commission of India (‘CCI’)have made relaxations and exemptions in terms of compliances and taxations. They have stepped up to facilitate e-filing procedures of applications, ultimately easing the transaction process for companies.

As a major relief for corporates, the MCA has eased the rules with respect to the way the Board Meetings are conducted. In March, an amendment was introduced to the Companies (Meeting of Board and its Powers) Rules, 2014 and directors of the companies were allowed to participate in the Board meetings through video conferencing or other audio-visual means, for issues such as Approval of the matters relating to amalgamation, merger, demerger, acquisition and takeover. Additionally, it also allowed companies to hold Annual General Meetings through video conferencing for the entire year.

Apart from this, SEBI asked all listed companies to make endeavors to ensure that investors are provided with timely and adequate information with respect to the impact of the pandemic on the company’s financial statements under SEBI (Listing Obligations and Disclosure Requirements) Regulations, 2015. This will help the investors in making decisions in terms of company’s financials and will give the right valuation of the companies.

Valuation

The pandemic has created an atmosphere of uncertainty and volatility, leading to ambiguities in terms of company valuations. For deals that were initiated before the COVID-19 outbreak, buyers and sellers are back to the negotiation tables to deliberate upon the valuation of the buyer. For the companies who just began negotiating the deal, they are likely to face difficulties in reaching at an appropriate valuation. In the former case, buyers would try to reconsider and renegotiate the valuation, while in the latter; they would attempt to leverage the lower valuation of the target company. Additionally, both the parties would want to bridge the time gap between signing and closing the deal in order to lessen the impact of volatility on the deal.

Due Diligence & Representation and Warranties

This aspect of transaction is going to face deviations since there is a lesser scope of physical inspection and more reliance on virtual due diligence and video conferences for discussions on Seller’s financial statements and analysis of all material aspects to search for financial risk indicators and compliance lapses, operating results and cash flows, seller’s default on key contracts and leases, termination rights under various contracts, data protection concerns etc. The Representation and warranties (R&Ws) hold the seller to the confirmation provided regarding the Buyer’s due diligence findings, audited and unaudited financial statements, seller’s liabilities & obligations, and material contracts. If the R&Ws are misleading, the buyer may terminate the acquisition and may even entitle them to post-closing indemnities. Although it is impossible to predict the long-term effects of the pandemic, due diligence process could be altered in such a way that it facilitates quicker transactions rather than causing hindrance through engaging advisors as early as possible, preparing for the reality of dealing with more unknown factors than usual and appropriate measures in planning.

Mitigation and Allocation of Risks

Once the Memorandum of Understanding (‘MOU’)/ letter of intent, term sheet, Non-Disclosure Agreement (‘NDA’) and other non-binding preliminary agreements are entered, the next step is to work towards a definitive agreement. Pandemic driven provisions should be added to address closing risk and closing certainty. Although each agreement is specifically tailored to transaction’s structure, several clauses can be common such as R&Ws, covenants, and conditions which mutually address the allocation of risk in such transactions. R&Ws regarding ownership, contractual arrangements of Intellectual Property (‘IP’) as well as non-infringement of IP rights are some of the most significant clauses.

Material Adverse Change (‘MAC’) is another important clause which now includes the events such as pandemics, lockdowns, and interruption of international trade in the transaction and functions between the signing of acquisition agreement and closing of the deal. This clause transfers the risk to the seller and therefore they push for a lenient MAC clause. Furthermore, the central government declared the COVID-19 outbreak as a “natural calamity” and directed that delays on account of the pandemic be treated as Force Majeure; however the direct effect of this on private contracts is absent. Although, the Force Majeure clause is common in conventional commercial contracts, the same cannot be said in case of M&A transactions as this provision is relatively rare in such agreements. Considering that the courts have expansively interpreted Force Majeure clauses and are not going to apply the defenses available outside of the terms of contract, the Force Majeure clauses could be included and tweaked to specifically address the threshold for invocation, methods of invocation, list of included events and consequences thereof.

Conclusion

While the world economy has taken a hit due to the pandemic, it has affected all the sectors in a very different manner. The deal making as a process is likely to see a new face and will emerge in a very different shape and manner. There are sectors like hospitality and tourism, that are fighting to keep their place, and then there are sectors like e-commerce and e-pharmacy that have shown ample amount of growth. It is most likely that in each sector, fewer players will survive. We will see an enormous amount of M&A with the buy side being influenced by ambition and the sell side by its stress and survival instincts.

This being said, India is going to experience a fundamental shift in the M&A landscape. The companies will have to adjust with certain realities that have become the new normal for the country. The unpredictable nature of COVID-19 has made it difficult for companies to evaluate the targets accurately and they will have to come up with ways to make adjustments accordingly.

The companies would want to go for acquisition as the mode of structure instead of schemes of compromise or arrangement, since they require NCLT approvals which are bound to delay the process further. Additionally, the time taken to complete the entire process might also get prolonged due to various other unresolved regulatory and technical hurdles.

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