What’s a good price?

Clunkers_in_JunkyardClunkers are in the news as part of the government’s weird but popular “Cash for Clunkers” stimulus program. Regardless of its policy merits, I’m pleased not to be in the market for a car right now, buying or selling. For me, anyway, the process is unpleasant – especially getting to the right price, including trade-ins and so forth. Plus clunkers, for now. The price always seems debatable.

Mergers and acquisitions seem a bit like that. As an investor relations person, I’m not part of the negotiating process for corporate deals. Folks who do negotiate the deals earn the big bucks – but that’s OK. My job is to communicate a deal once it’s done. I’ve enjoyed strategizing and helping communicate dozens of deals over the years, so I thought I might share a few ideas on M&A communication.

First, one more thought about clunkers: Buyers and sellers have different points of view in negotiating (and then communicating) a transaction. The pattern is so much a part of human nature that deal making spawned an ancient proverb: “‘It’s no good, it’s no good!’ says the buyer; then off he goes and boasts about his purchase.” The seller, also, has one story in negotiations – “You’re looking at an absolute gem!” – and later brags what a great price he got for the old heap.

Please don’t think me cynical. It’s just that, in communicating an M&A transaction, talking about price is one of the biggest challenges. Is it high, is it low? A windfall for the sellers, a bargain for the buyers? What comparisons can add perspective?

That single number – “How much per share?” – is the most important fact of the whole deal to shareholders of a company that is selling. It’s important, too, for shareholders of the buyer. Other questions about the deal, at least among financial audiences, often seek to shed light on whether it’s is a good price.

So how do we describe the price being offered or paid in an M&A transaction?

  • Realize that communicating a deal is a collaborative effort. Rules often are dictated by the delicate relationship between buyer and seller – and by their lawyers. Both sides have to be able to explain why this is a good deal for them. The lawyers provide cautious language and disclaimers to keep everyone on the right side of securities regulations. How about putting all the parties around a table to hash out key messages for communication? Or connecting the two communication staffs to cooperate on an announcement?
  • When a deal is almost ready to announce, the investment banker is a key resource for communicators who are crafting messages. Regardless of how you feel about i-bankers the rest of the time, they know how to sell a deal – and its price. A financial adviser’s fairness opinion typically is at the heart of formal communications to shareholders. Look for key messages and words in the presentations used to sell the deal to your board, and go from there.
  • Comparisons offer perspective – though picking the right ones can be tricky. The first place everyone looks is the “premium” – what percentage is the offer above the last price at which the target company’s stock traded? But that’s not the only comparison. A stock’s 52-week high is the most common benchmark used in negotiating public-company deals, according to a Harvard B-school study of 7,500 deals cited in the July-August 2009 CFO. If the offer is above the 52-week high, fine; if not, boards are afraid shareholders will balk. Providing the 52-week range is easy and factual.
  • Be prepared to discuss valuation measures. Whether or not you use them in a press release or formal presentation, metrics like multiples of EBITDA or book value (picking the right metrics is industry-specific) help tell the story to well-informed investors who already have a sense of what multiples are fair.
  • On the buying company’s side, consider how the price interacts with hoped-for the synergies, cost savings and strategic quantum-leaps that your CEO will want to discuss. And at least ask the question, “What kind of return do we expect to earn on this investment?” Shareholders like to hear that an acquisition is earnings-neutral, or accretive this year or next. But the bigger question is what’s the ROI or ROE we’re getting for shareholders’ money?
  • Talk about timing. Any deal being negotiated now has a lot to do with the stage of the business cycle – prices are depressed, sellers may be more willing because cash (or credit) is running out, and an expected recovery may figure into the buyer’s rationale for expecting an economic return. This context is relevant for shareholders on both sides.

All of which brings me to the TV game show “The Price Is Right.” You know, the 1950s-style program where contestants try to guess the true value of some consumer item. It’s been around so long Bob Barker had to retire, but the show goes on. Its durability, I think, comes from the fact that people enjoy debating prices and values of things. And that’s certainly true in the market for stocks of public companies – watch the argument triggered by just about any M&A deal.

In preparing to announce a sale or acquisition, therefore, investor relations people need to take price into consideration as a message. It’s a key question in any transaction. And I believe we should try to answer investors’ questions, even before they’re asked, as proactively and completely as possible.

Those are my ideas. I welcome your M&A insights – just click “Leave a comment.”

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