Takeover transactions raise significant corporate governance questions about the allocation of decision-making power among firm participants, whether and to what extent participants are constrained in their exercise of decision-making power, and whether and to what extent participants can be held accountable for their decisions. Public company M&A deals, especially, involve complex steps and contracts, and are transactions that unfold over time. This timeline involves a variety of decisions for the board of each company, and the ultimate decisions made by the board can be subject to shareholder voting or acceptance. The rules designed to address corporate governance in takeovers often reflect the ownership structure prevalent in a particular jurisdiction, but they also reflect the political power of interest groups that influence the law. The result is thus a mishmash of rules that attempt to balance both concerns about ownership structure and the desires of powerful interest groups.
In a forthcoming book chapter, I consider how corporate governance concerns are reflected in the law’s approach to regulating friendly takeovers, ie acquisitions by third party bidders that are negotiated and supported by the management of the target company. Two countries with similar capital markets and institutional frameworks, the US and UK, approach these corporate governance concerns and the balance of power between the board of directors and shareholders in increasingly divergent ways. I argue that while the UK approach to friendly takeovers constrains director power, the US approach continues to maintain and reinforce the centrality of director decision-making.
The UK is characterized by ex-ante rules that constrain managerial power and favor shareholder voice, whether deals are done via a takeover or some other structure such as a scheme of arrangement. For both structures, UK rules provide a significant voice, through voting rights or otherwise, for target shareholders. In a departure from the US model, in acquisitions of a significant size shareholders of UK bidder firms also have voting rights that constrain bidder boards. Furthermore, while the US takes a board-centric approach to director power in erecting takeover barriers, the Takeover Code limits the ability of directors to diminish or ‘frustrate’ shareholder power through takeover defenses. Significantly for friendly deals, in 2011 the UK revised its takeover rules to also dramatically constrain the power of directors to negotiate deal protection mechanisms. A key principle in the UK’s approach to friendly takeovers is constraint on director power and negotiating leverage. The shareholder-centric approach of the UK in many ways reflects the power of institutional investors who have been central to the drafting and design of the Takeover Code.
In balancing corporate governance concerns in friendly takeovers, the US has historically emphasized the interplay between ex ante protections (ie disclosure and shareholder voice) and ex post policing (ie litigation) in ways that reflect a director-centric approach. Shareholder voice is more constrained than in the UK. Not only is the voting threshold lower for shareholder voting in M&A deals, but bidder shareholders are often deprived of voting rights even in significant transactions. While shareholders may have a voice, the transaction is controlled by management. Management controls the timing and negotiation of the deal, as well as the information upon which shareholders rely in deciding whether to approve the matter or to tender in their shares. The shareholders’ vote on a deal hinges on the structure of the deal as designed by directors, including the deal protection provisions of the transaction. Unlike in the UK, directors of US firms have wide latitude to design deal protection measures. In fact, over the past decade, deal protection mechanisms have become stronger in the US with a proliferation and expansion of a variety of mechanisms that provide management with tools to protect its preferred deal.
Cognizant of management control and their conflicting incentives in negotiating takeovers, Delaware law has historically provided target shareholders two avenues to hold directors accountable through the courts—fiduciary duty litigation and appraisal rights. Over the past decade both avenues have been eroded by new doctrine. Shareholders seeking to pursue a claim for breach of fiduciary duties in a friendly takeover can file a suit for a preliminary injunction seeking to bring forth additional disclosure or to modify the merger agreement, particularly deal protection measures. Since the mid-2010s, however, the Delaware courts have tightened the standard for preliminary injunctions in merger cases, thus limiting shareholders’ ability to pursue fiduciary-based claims. Through the Corwin case and its progeny, the Delaware courts have also limited ex-post judicial review of board decisions in third-party takeovers. These decisions were a systematic move by the Delaware Courts to place limits on the wave of merger-related litigation sweeping its courts.
Under Delaware law, in certain takeovers, stockholders are entitled to an appraisal right; that is to refuse to accept the consideration offered and instead turn to the courts to determine the fair value of their shares. Appraisal was long seen as a limited remedy, but in the last decade appraisal actions gained steam with sophisticated investors acting as dissenting shareholders. The increase in appraisal actions led to a trio of important decisions by the Delaware Supreme Court. These decisions place great emphasis on the agreed-to deal price as the ‘fair value’, substantially weakening appraisal as a remedy. The courts’ deference to deal price is driven by many of the same considerations that have driven limitations on fiduciary duty litigation in friendly takeovers.
Overall, Delaware jurisprudence now emphasizes the value of ex ante methods—such as deal process or deal-requirements like shareholder voting—to address corporate governance concerns. The shifts in Delaware have been depicted as elevating governance and procedure over costly and uncertain litigation. Some commentators have even argued that these moves recognize increased shareholder power in the US and bring Delaware closer to the UK model where the primary role of the target board is ensuring a stockholder vote.
I argue, however, that once we take into account the authority that boards have in designing a deal and putting into place a wide variety of deal protection mechanisms, the move toward expanding the value of ex ante shareholder voice and devaluing ex-post litigation in reality maintains and reinforces management power in Delaware. This is not surprising. The Delaware approach to takeovers, with courts as the arbiter of corporate governance disputes, has long been concerned with maintaining the centrality of board decision-making. And when that centrality came under attack with the rise in fiduciary duty and appraisal litigation, the courts responded to the significant management backlash to these rising trends by reverting to the pro-manager approach of Delaware jurisprudence. Thus, Delaware maintains the deference given to board decisions and continues to insulate director decisions on deal protection from second-guessing by shareholders or courts. Similarly, the turn in appraisal jurisprudence reflects judicial faith in deal process as designed by boards and management. While the US litigation regime now appears to elevate the value of a shareholder vote in friendly deals, this vote is in the context of deals that have been designed through a plethora of deal protection mechanisms to tie the hands of shareholders and leave them stuck with the deal as presented by management.
The primacy of directors under the US regime becomes even more pronounced when one compares that regime with the UK’s, which places significant constraints on the board’s ability to negotiate deal protection devices. The question remains open, however, as to which system is better for the corporation and its shareholders.
Afra Afsharipour is Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs & Professor of Law at the UC Davis School of Law.