February 23, 2006

When to Be Skeptical of Fairness Opinions

Chris Young, ISS’ M&A Research Director, blogs these thoughts in the new ISS “Corporate Governance Blog“:

“Conglomerates are not born rather they are created primarily via acquisitions. Many of the acquisitions used to build up conglomerates were undertaken based on the advice of investment bankers and attorneys, the same advisors that now counsel a reversal of course and the sale of “unrelated” businesses. Advisors first trumpet the supposed synergies to be derived from sharing the same roof, and then turn around and sing the praises of the “strategic focus” that comes from going it alone. Of course, the bankers and lawyers make their fees coming and going.

This change of heart phenomena is not limited to the build up and breakdown of conglomerates. On February 13, Merrill Lynch (MER) agreed to swap its mutual fund management business for a major stake in BlackRock Inc. (BLK). This move is in effect a reversal of the “one-stop shop” strategic rationale that was all the rage in the 1990s and which was used to justify a significant amount of M&A activity in the financial services industry.

Of course, hindsight is often 20:20, and no one can ever know for sure if the synergies forecasted for an acquisition will ever by realized. Yet the ease at which advisors apparently are able to “do a 180” should give shareholders pause when evaluating the importance of fairness opinions supporting acquisitions. Advisors may be able to profit twice despite being “wrong,” but shareholders do not have that luxury. As such, ISS recommends that shareholders apply a healthy dose of skepticism whenever a company justifies a deal based upon the receipt of a fairness opinion or highlights the participation of a brand name advisor.”