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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

About advantages and disadvantages of mergers and acquisitions (M&A) and demergers

As a general rule, mergers and acquisitions (M&A) are value destructive for shareholders. Demergers or spin-offs are value accretive. In simple English, that means, avoid the shares of an acquiring company. But there may be money making opportunities in the companies being demerged or spun off.

There is a difference between a merger and an acquisition. Mergers are rare, as they happen between two companies that are equal in size and reach. Both companies lose their individual identities, and a third company is formed. For example, pharma companies Glaxo Wellcome merged with Smith Kline Beecham, and formed a third entity, Glaxo SmithKline.

In India, the situation was different. A much smaller but profitable and shareholder-friendly EsKayef lost its identity to the bigger but slower growing Glaxo. EsKayef shareholders were given Glaxo shares in the ratio of 1:2.

An acquisition, or a takeover, happens when a bigger company buys out a smaller company, with or without the smaller company's cooperation or willingness to be acquired. The usual motivations are economies of scale, killing a competitor, gaining market share and reach.

The biggest disadvantage of acquisitions is that they fail because of cultural mismatches. Every company is shaped over the years by the vision and background of its promoters or management. This is called 'company culture' - the way they project themselves in the market place, how they treat customers, employees, suppliers and shareholders, their social responsibilities, integrity and commitment, innovating capabilities.

No two companies do business the same way, even within the same sector. When one company acquires another, the cultural differences become very difficult to overcome. This leads to key personnel of the acquired company quitting and leaving with priceless intellectual property and customer relationships built up over many years.

Reverse takeovers, when a smaller company acquires a larger one, are even worse. Like Tata Steel buying Corus or Tata Motors buying Jaguar-Land Rover. In both cases, the the ambition was to become  global companies in quick time. But the prices paid in both cases were too high, and the timing was wrong. The shares of both companies tanked while they scrambled to raise money to cover the huge acquisition debt.

For shareholders of the company being acquired, an advantage could be a bidding war between two or more potential acquirers. This is currently happening with Great Offshore (earlier demerged from Great Eastern Shipping). Without any change in the fundamentals, the share price is going up as two likely acquirers are bidding up the offer price.

Opto Circuits is a notable example of an Indian company that has successfully used the acquisition route to grow its sales and profits quickly. Probably because they have shrewdly targetted companies with complementary products and geographical reach that were not doing well financially.

Demergers and spin-offs happen due to two main reasons:

1. Getting rid of an unwanted or less profitable division or subsidiary - like Larsen & Toubro did with its cement business, and ICI has done with its non-paint subsidiaries. Profitability and share prices of both companies increased significantly.

2. Spinning off a division or subsidiary into a stand-alone company because it has grown in size and value. Mahindra & Mahindra has done this a few times, with its financial services, information technology, holiday resorts subsidiaries.

Investors would do well to look out for companies that have 'hidden assets' in the form of profitable subsidiaries. Sooner or later, these subsidiaries will get demerged or spun off. With reforms in the financial sector a top priority of the Government, I would keep a close watch on companies with asset management (read, 'Mutual Funds') and insurance subsidiaries.

A few companies that come to mind are Reliance Capital (though I'm not particularly fond of the word 'Reliance'), Exide, HDFC, Sundaram Finance, SBI, Canara Bank.

(Interested readers can learn more about M&A from this article.)

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