As reported today in Law360 [$$], the Delaware Supreme Court heard argument yesterday on the chancery court’s ruling in the Dell appraisal case.  The court did not render its decision and did not indicate when it would do so.  We’ll continue to monitor the docket and post when the ruling comes down.

** Note: this law firm is one of the counsel of record in the Dell case.

The Delaware Chancery Court’s recent opinion in Owen v. Cannon has garnered little notice or press coverage, but deserves attention not only because the hybrid fiduciary duty-appraisal decision is Chancellor Bouchard’s first foray into the appraisal space, but because it reinforces some basic appraisal tenets and yet also bucks what some have called a recent trend of merger price rulings.

The transaction arose from the interactions of the company’s three main principals: Nate Owen, the founder and president of the firm at the center of the lawsuit, Energy Services Group; his brother Bryn, who worked at ESG directly under Nate; and Lynn Cannon, who put up the capital for the Company.  Bryn and Cannon eventually forced Nate out of his job as president (with Cannon being his replacement), and cashed out in a short-form merger Nate’s significant minority stake in ESG for just under $20/share.  After applying a discounted cash flow analysis, and no other valuation methods, Chancellor Bouchard awarded Nate approximately $42 million for his 1.32 million shares of ESG, or just under $32/share.  The Chancellor’s $12/share premium is a departure from a recent slate of appraisal actions, including Ramtron and Ancestry.com, in which the Court of Chancery has rejected income- or market-based valuation methodologies while looking simply to the merger price as fair value.

In his lengthy opinion, Chancellor Bouchard reaffirms a number of bedrock principles of the appraisal analysis:

  • The primacy of the DCF. According to Chancellor Bouchard, the discounted cash flow valuation methodology is the preferred manner in which to determine fair value because “it is the [valuation] approach that merits the greatest confidence within the financial community.”  Chancellor Bouchard’s view on the use of transaction price as proof of fair value was not tested in Owen, as both valuation experts in the case used a DCF exclusively and the Chancellor thus had no occasion to opine on the merits of merger price or any other metric to determine fair value.
  • Reliable management projections can be dispositive. Of course, a DCF is only as good as its inputs.  Much of the Chancellor’s exhaustive 80-page opinion was dedicated to whether or not he could rely on management projections created by Cannon in 2013 in connection with Nate’s buy-out.  Chancellor Bouchard determined that he could, in large part because Cannon created the projections when he was already trying to force Nate out of the company (meaning that the projections already had conservative assumptions baked in), and ESG submitted the projections to Citizens Bank to obtain a $25 million revolver (meaning that it would be a federal crime if the projections were false).  In contrast, the Chancellor applied well-settled Delaware law in rejecting defendants’ expert’s post hoc, litigation-driven projections in their entirety.
  • Tax treatment can mean real money. ESG was a subchapter S corporation, meaning that (unlike in a subchapter C corporation) ESG’s income was only taxed once, at the stockholder’s income rate.  Because Delaware law requires a shareholder in an appraisal to be paid “for that which has been taken from him,” and a “critical component” of what was taken from Nate was the “tax advantage” of owning shares in a subchapter S corporation, Chancellor Bouchard adopted Nate’s argument that the Court’s DCF should be tax affected to take into account ESG’s subchapter S status.  Under the hypothetical posed by the Chancellor in Owen, S Corp tax treatment means a nearly $14 boon to an investor for every $100 of income.
  • Absent identifiable risk of insolvency, inflation is the floor for a terminal growth rate, with a premium to inflation being appropriate for profitable companies. The DCF’s terminal growth rate — which is intended to capture a firm’s future growth rate while still recognizing that firms cannot over time grow materially in excess of the economy’s real growth — is a critical DCF input.  (We described one way to calculate terminal growth here, in an earlier post in our “Valuation Basics Series”).  Applying Delaware precedent, Chancellor Bouchard determined that it was appropriate to set the terminal growth rate at 3%, a “modest” 100 basis points premium over the Fed’s projected 2% inflation rate.  According to the Chancellor (quoting a 2010 Delaware Supreme Court decision), “the rate of inflation is the floor for a terminal value estimate for a solidly profitable company that does not have an identifiable risk of insolvency.”  Chancellor Bouchard, however, rejected Nate’s suggested 5% terminal growth rate (above nominal GDP growth) as too high for ESG, a company facing increasing competitive pressures whose years of rapid growth may have been behind it.

The Chancellor also found breaches of fiduciary duties, generally agreeing that, by Nate’s description, the merger was conducted in a “boom, done, Blitzkrieg style,” with Nate having been given notice (by sheriff’s service) on Friday, May 3, 2013 of a Monday, May 6, 2013 special meeting of shareholders to vote on the merger.  This was especially egregious as ESG had never before held a formal board meeting until Cannon and Bryn orchestrated two such last-minute meetings, the first one being to terminate Nate’s employment with ESG (which meeting Nate found out about while tending to a health issue for his wife).  The May 6 meeting was conducted despite Nate’s request for an adjournment, and the meeting was overseen by an armed guard who stood “at the door with a gun at his hip.”  Nevertheless, the damages award for the fiduciary duty claims equaled those decided by Chancellor Bouchard’s appraisal ruling.

The purchaser of a company through merger often argues in a subsequent appraisal action that the price paid was too high and that the dissenting shareholder should be paid a lower amount. Tactically, it is important for the purchaser to impress the dissenting shareholder with down-side risk in pursuing the appraisal. The resulting inference of such a position is that the acquirer must have “overpaid” for the asset. To justify such a position, the acquirer may argue that his purchase price included a payment for so-called “synergies” that must be excluded from the going-concern value of the company. However, true “synergies” should be rarely acknowledged and quantified in appraisal proceedings.

The plain language of the appraisal statute sets the stage for the “synergies” argument because it requires the Court to determine the “fair value” of the shares “exclusive of any element of value arising from the accomplishment or expectation of the merger.” 8 Del. C.§ 262(h). What exactly does this mean, however? Consider the following hypothetical: Suppose a Company owns vast proven oil reserves, but lacks the capital necessary to drill wells and exploit the oil fields. If the Company markets itself, all potential bidders will bid for the property based upon their expected returns after making the capital investments necessary to exploit the oil reserves. Are these capital investments “synergies” because they constitute value that will be achieved only “through accomplishment of the merger? The answer should be “no.” If the Company sold the oil fields it would obtain offers that reflect the market value of the assets to purchasers who would use them. Shareholders who own the Company should share in the value of those reserves. On the other hand, what if the acquirer is willing to pay more for the Company because it is vertically integrating in an industry and will be able to extract greater value from the assets than would otherwise be possible? In that case, there is no reason to believe that the “synergy” created should be considered part of the going concern value on the date of the merger.

Although the above examples illustrate the complexity of the problem, many appraisal cases involve business opportunities that could have been pursued by the Company but had not yet reached fruition at the time of the merger. To deal with these situations, the Delaware courts have developed the concepts of “undue speculation” and “operative reality”. According to the Delaware Supreme Court in Weinberger v. UOP, Inc., 457 A.2d 701, 713 (Del 1983), the intent of the statute is to exclude only “speculative elements of value that may arise from the ‘accomplishment or expectation’ of the merger.” It is a “very narrow exception to the valuation process designed to eliminate use of pro forma data and projections of a speculative nature relating to completion of a merger.” In contrast, the “operative reality” of a company includes all “future prospects” that are ‘known or knowable” at the time of the merger –whether or not they have been achieved. MRI Radiology Assocs., P.A. v. Kessler, 898 A.2d 290, 315 (Del. Ch. 2006). The value of such “future prospects” rightly belong to the dissenting shareholder who would have presumably shared in their exploitation and realization had he been allowed to continue as a long-term owner in the concern.

In light of these principles, so-called “synergies” should be a narrow, rarely invoked exclusion to going concern value. When the acquirer is an insider or an investment professional, one should be very suspicious about alleged claims of synergies that are only first identified post-closing to downgrade the valuation analysis. Most claims of synergy will likely be nothing more than the financial exploitation of known or knowable prospects — like the oil fields in the example above. In the case of strategic buyers — who are either vertically or horizontally related to the Company — claims of synergy may be real. However, many analysts and lawyers believe that in order for synergy claims to be credible in an appraisal proceeding, they must be opportunities that the Company could never have identified or implemented on its own and should be quantified and disclosed to shareholders before they vote on the merger.