Go-Shop Provisions Start To Catch On

By Mutya Harsch and Paul Kingsley

In the current market, more and more public company merger agreements contain a so-called “go-shop” provision that permits the target company to continue to actively solicit a better deal after signing a definitive agreement with the initial buyer. The increased use of this provision suggests a trend that is fueled by an M&A environment dominated by financial buyers and increasing competition for deals.

What’s A Go-Shop Provision?

A “go-shop” is a provision in a merger agreement that allows a target to solicit interest from potential buyers of the company for a limited period of time (typically between 20-55 days) after signing a definitive agreement with an initial buyer. The right to solicit includes the ability to exchange confidential information about the target with a potential buyer so long as the potential buyer signs a confidentiality agreement that is substantially on the same terms as the confidentiality agreement signed with the initial buyer.

Any potential buyer expressing interest during the go-shop period is encouraged to submit an acquisition proposal to the target and is usually permitted to continue any ongoing discussions with the target after the go-shop period expires. Once the go-shop period ends, the target typically is subject to the customary “no-shop” prohibitions against soliciting other bidders or engaging in due diligence or negotiations except in response to an unsolicited offer that could reasonably be expected to lead to a superior transaction.

In virtually any public company merger agreement, if a superior offer emerges, the target company board is able to exercise a “fiduciary out” and terminate the merger agreement with the initial buyer subject to the payment of a break-up fee. However, merger agreements that contain a go-shop provision often have a two-tiered break-up fee that is approximately 1-2% of the equity value of the transaction if the superior offer results from discussions arising during the go-shop period, and increases to between 2-4% of equity value if arising after the go-shop period. Because there may not have been an auction prior to signing the agreement, the lower break-up fee during the go-shop period is less of a hurdle for potential competing bidders.

From a seller’s standpoint, a go-shop provision is desirable for a number of reasons. The initial buyer serves as a stalking horse to potentially make the seller more attractive to other buyers, and its purchase price sets a floor for other potential buyers to top. A go-shop also preserves a board’s ability to fulfill its fiduciary responsibilities while not conducting a full-blown auction initially by providing for an alternative process in which the target can solicit competing bids. A go-shop also allows a target to secure a deal prior to widely soliciting bids, unlike a typical auction situation where there is a risk that the target may conduct a highly visible public auction only to be left with no buyer.

From a buyer’s point of view, agreeing to a go-shop might secure a deal with a target without the buyer having to participate in a lengthy auction, putting the initial buyer in the enviable first-place position as the preferred buyer. Although the target is able to shop the deal after signing, that period may be shorter than a typical auction period. Upon signing the merger agreement, the initial buyer benefits from the deal protection rights in the merger agreement, including potentially “last-look” or “match” rights upon the receipt by the seller of a superior proposal. Some recent agreements containing go-shops, however, have eliminated the initial buyer’s right to match a superior bid made during the go-shop period, reducing the advantage. As previously discussed, the initial buyer typically receives a break-up fee if the target terminates the merger agreement in favor of a better deal.

Despite these advantages, some critics have questioned the efficacy of go-shops, citing their limited ability to lure other bidders. Bidders are less likely to emerge after a deal has been signed due to the advantages conferred on the initial buyer in a merger agreement and the additional cost of paying a break-up fee. Bidders are, however, more likely to emerge if actively solicited, as is the case during a go-shop period, which some commentators believe offsets a potential bidder’s hesitancy to break up a pre-existing M&A deal. The number of bidders willing to jump a deal have also increased, suggesting a larger appetite in the market for hostile activity.

Market Experience

Go-shops first occurred in non-shopped LBO deals led by founders and management, although they currently appear also in other types of LBO deals. For example, there may be special circumstances that require the company to limit active shopping of a deal in order to balance other interests, such as the interests in controlling leaks during an auction process, avoiding competitive issues in disclosing information to strategic buyers, and minimizing distraction to management during an auction process.

Since January 1, 2004, 19 publicly announced M&A deals in the U.S. contained a go-shop provision. Of these deals, three resulted in the target’s closing on a superior transaction. In most cases, the parties did not conduct a market check prior to signing the definitive agreement but in some cases (see, e.g., West Corporation, Criimi Mae Inc., Ace Cash Express), pre-signing market checks were conducted.

Fiduciary Duty Issues To Consider

Under Delaware’s Revlon standard, a board has a fiduciary duty when selling the company to seek the highest price reasonably available. It remains true today that Revlon does not require the target to conduct an auction so long as the no-shop, break-up fee and other deal protections do not preclude expressions of interest from other potential buyers. However, a target board that foregoes an auction or other pre-signing market check should consider whether a go-shop provision may be appropriate in certain circumstances.

If the target elects to include a go-shop provision, it can enhance the sale and thereby further buttress the argument that the board has satisfied its Revlon duties by limiting, during the go-shop period, some of the rights by which the incumbent might otherwise expect to have during a no-shop period. For example, we have seen deals where the incumbent’s right to match a superior proposal is suspended during the go-shop period (see, e.g., OSI Restaurant Partners, Inc., Kerzner International) or during some part of the period (see, e.g., Freescale Semiconductor, Inc.). As noted above, break-up fees are often lower during the go-shop period than in the no-shop period. And the requirements to inform the incumbent of the terms of any competing proposal are also typically more limited during the go-shop period.

Mutya Harsch is an associate in Davis Polk & Wardwell’s Corporate Department, where she is assigned to the Mergers and Acquisitions Group. Reach here at mutya.harsch@dpw.com; Paul Kinglsey is a member of Davis Polks & Wardwell’s Corporate Department, where he represents corporate clients and buyout firms in mergers and aquisitions. Reach him at paul.kingsley@dpw.com.