We recently posted about the two related January 5, 2015 arbitrage decisions, in which the Delaware Chancery Court refused to impose share-tracing requirements or other obligations on beneficial stockholders and reaffirmed that only record owners bear the burden to no-vote their shares and otherwise perfect their appraisal rights. This week the lawyers defending Ancestry.com, whose arguments were rejected by the Court, have posted this blog calling for legislative reform of the appraisal rights statute to remedy what they perceive to be a “troubling expansion” of stockholder appraisal rights.
In two separate rulings on January 5, 2015 — In re Appraisal of Ancestry.com., Inc., and Merion Capital LP v. BMC Software, Inc., both by Vice Chancellor Glasscock — the Delaware Chancery Court reaffirmed the legitimacy of the appraisal arbitrage strategy and refused to impose share-tracing requirements or other obligations on the beneficial stockholder, continuing to require only of the record owner that it perfect appraisal rights by not voting in favor of the deal and making a timely demand for appraisal. News of these rulings has already been widely reported, including by Reuters and The Wall Street Journal.
We’ve posted before about arbitrage opportunities in appraisal rights and the increased utilization of this strategy by professional investors. Indeed, we had been awaiting the Chancery Court’s ruling in Ancestry.com, as it presented the first opportunity since the Delaware appraisal statute was amended in 2007 to decide whether the Court’s prior ruling in Transkaryotic would remain good law in light of that amendment.
Both new cases address the practice of so-called appraisal arbitrage, in which an investor buys the target company’s stock after a merger announcement. In the Ancestry.com case, the Court rejected the company’s argument that given the 2007 amendment to the appraisal statute — by which Delaware’s legislature expressly permitted beneficial owners to file appraisal petitions directly on their own behalf — the beneficial owner should be required to show that its predecessors did not vote in favor of the merger, and if it cannot do so, it lacks standing. The Court held that under a plain reading of the statute, it remains the record holder alone who must have no-voted the shares for which it seeks appraisal; the statute does not impose any requirement on a stockholder to demonstrate that previous owners also refrained from voting in favor. In other words, the Court affirmed Chancellor Chandler’s previous ruling in Transkaryotic that the actions of the beneficial holders are irrelevant in appraisal actions, and the Court thus refused to adopt the company’s proposed share-tracing requirement. As a matter of procedure, the Court denied the company’s motion for summary judgment on this issue; the appraisal decision itself has not yet been made and will issue separately.
The ruling in Ancestry.com is thus the first decision to uphold appraisal arbitrage after the 2007 statutory amendment was made; Transkaryotic, which first permitted arbitrage, was decided in 2007 prior to the amendment. The ruling in Transkaryotic was based in large part on Chancellor Chandler’s accounting for the fact that in a typical situation the owner of stock certificates, such as Cede & Co. — which is usually the nominal owner of shares that are on deposit with the Depository Trust Company — holds their shares in an undifferentiated manner in “fungible bulk,” and so no shareholder has ownership rights to any particular share of stock. Vice Chancellor Glasscock’s new ruling continued to recognize that reality and found nothing in the 2007 amendment to Section 262 to suggest that the Delaware legislature intended to require beneficial owners who made post-record-date purchases to show that their specific shares were not voted in favor of the merger. In fact, the Court found Ancestry.com’s proposed requirement to contradict and be invalidated by the Court’s prior approach in Transkaryotic.
The action in Merion Capital v. BMC Software was brought by Merion Capital, a self-described “event-driven investment” fund that specializes in appraisal arbitrage. The stockholder in that case faced a unique problem because Cede refused to make its appraisal demand on its behalf, so Merion was forced to have its holdings in BMC stock withdrawn from the “fungible mass” at DTC/Cede and registered directly with BMC’s transfer agent, Computershare. Merion thus sought to become its own record holder as well, and the Court found that it succeeded in doing so and properly made demand. BMC challenged Merion’s standing by saying Merion needed to prove that each share it seeks to have appraised was not voted by any previous owner in favor of the merger. The Court rejected BMC’s challenge and found that Merion succeeded in showing that it had not voted the shares in favor of the merger; as it did with Ancestry.com and Transkaryotic, the Court held that nothing in the statute requires a stockholder to prove that the specific shares it seeks to appraise were not voted in favor of the merger.
These rulings clearly reaffirm the validity of appraisal arbitrage, at least as a legal matter. Of course, as a practical matter, that strategy remains subject to the very real risk that the number of shares presented for appraisal actually outnumbers the number of no-voted shares eligible for appraisal, causing the appraisal action to be oversubscribed. The Court refused to make any pronouncement on how it might rule in such an overappraised situation, since it was not presented with those facts in either of these two cases.
In a forthcoming law review article expected to be published in 2015 in the Washington University Law Review, “Appraisal Arbitrage and the Future of Public Company M&A,” Charles Korsmo (Associate Professor at Brooklyn Law School) and Minor Myers (Associate Professor at Brooklyn Law School) report their findings showing a large uptick in the number of appraisal petitions being filed, as well as a marked increase in the size of the petitioners’ holdings and an increased level of sophistication among the filers themselves. The authors observe an increased use of arbitrage by which petitioners appear to invest in the target after the M&A deal is announced (for more about arbitrage, see our prior post here). While the authors note that the defense community has decried appraisal arbitrage as an abusive exercise of appraisal rights that ought to be suppressed, the authors argue that this criticism has it precisely backward and that the “new world of appraisal” should be welcomed and encouraged, as it ultimately provides an efficient means for benefiting minority shareholders and actually reducing the cost of raising equity capital.
Among the highly telling data points that Professors Korsmo and Myers collected for their analysis, they found that the value of claims in appraisal in 2013 was nearly $1.5 billion, a tenfold increase from 2004 and nearly 1% of the equity value of all merger activity in 2013. They attribute this surge in appraisal claims to the increased use of appraisal arbitrage in a manner that is transforming what this blog has repeatedly described as an underutilized shareholder remedy into a specialized investment strategy.
An interesting question first addressed many years ago has just resurfaced: can a shareholder seek appraisal rights for shares it acquires after the merger is announced and even after the record date that is set for voting on whether to approve the proposed M&A transaction? Historically the Delaware court said yes, subject to certain other conditions being met, but that may not be the last word on the subject. The New York Times recently blogged about a new case currently before the Delaware courts arising from the buyout of Ancestry.com, showing that this issue is timely again.
First, some background: in 2007, the Delaware Chancery Court opened the door to arbitrage possibilities by its ruling in the appraisal rights case of Transkaryotic Therapies, Inc. In that proceeding, the court permitted a shareholder to exercise appraisal rights for shares acquired after the record date but before the merger vote, provided that the record holder had timely notified the issuer, pre-vote, of a sufficient number of “no” votes or abstentions to cover the number of newly acquired shares being put up for appraisal. The court recognized that owners of stock certificates, such as Cede & Co. — which is typically the nominal owner of shares that are on deposit with the Depository Trust Company, hold their shares in an undifferentiated manner in “fungible bulk,” and so no shareholder has ownership rights to any particular share of stock. Accordingly, there is no voting history attached to any particular share of stock or beneficial owner; all that matters is that the record holder vote no or abstain with respect to a sufficient number of shares to cover the newly acquired shares for which a petitioner wants to seek appraisal.
There are limits as to how late a stockholder may acquire shares for purposes of appraisal; naturally, shares bought after the merger vote, even if acquired before the merger consummation or closing date, won’t count toward appraisal, as they are acquired too late and without sufficient notice to the company.
To illustrate the point, let’s assume that a shareholder currently owns five shares in XYZ Company and an announcement is made on June 10 that ABC Company will be acquiring XYZ. XYZ will be conducting a shareholder meeting regarding the proposed merger on July 1, based on a record date of June 20. Now let’s assume that after the deal is announced and before the July 1 shareholder meeting, our shareholder directs Cede to provide notice to XYZ Company that she will be dissenting with respect to her five shares. Cede then follows those instructions, as well as the directions it receives from all the other beneficial owners for whom it holds shares, and Cede goes ahead and provides notice to the company for all the “no” votes that it has been directed to give. Let’s further assume the total of “no” votes is 100, and in addition to those votes, there are 50 abstentions, so the total number of shares “eligible” for an appraisal demand is 150.
If our shareholder later buys five more shares after the June 20 record date but prior to the July 1 merger vote, she can still seek appraisal for her new total of 10 shares out of the 150 eligible shares for which Cede has given notice. If, however, other dissenting beneficial owners for whom Cede also holds have tendered 145 shares for appraisal, then our shareholder can seek appraisal for only five of her shares, not for the other five in excess of the 150 total eligible shares.
The Transkaryotic opinion back in 2007 was issued by the Delaware Chancery Court, and the rule in this case has not yet been affirmed or otherwise opined on by the Delaware Supreme Court; it is indeed the standing principle today but could become more controversial and may well be revisited if it reaches the Supreme Court and they see things differently. And now that Ancestry.com seems to be taking a run at challenging the Transkaryotic ruling, based in part on a change in the appraisal statute since the time that that case was decided, the Delaware courts may take up this issue again. We’ll watch this case as it proceeds and post any new developments here.