January 2, 2007

The “League Tables”: Battle for the Top

I always love this stuff. On Saturday, the WSJ ran this article about the battle to obtain top ranking for Thomson Financial’s all-important league tables regarding deal advisors (and here’s an article from today’s WSJ about the top deals of ’06):

“Citigroup lost a bid Tuesday to win credit for arranging a $30 billion deal in Norway that might have vaulted it to the top of one closely watched list of busiest advisers on European merger-and-acquisition deals. After days of wrangling, Thomson Financial declined to give the banking titan “league table” credit for writing a fairness opinion – a relatively minor role in the merger process – that endorsed Norsk Hydro’s planned $30 billion sale of energy assets to Statoil.

Citigroup was appointed by Norsk Hydro on Dec. 18, the same day the deal was announced. Thomson, whose league tables are cited by investment banks to validate their deal prowess, requires banks to prove they were hired before deals are announced to be granted credit. A Citigroup spokeswoman declined to comment.

Dealogic, a rival to Thomson Financial, on Thursday gave Citigroup credit for the Norsk Hydro assignment. It and Thomson rank the banking titan second behind Goldman Sachs Group Inc. as the top global adviser on mergers.

Citigroup lobbied hard for the Norsk Hydro credit, people close to the company said, because it would have given it dominance in the European league tables. According to Dealogic, the deal vaults Citigroup one notch up in the European rankings to third place. But in Thomson’s rankings, the Norwegian deal would have let Citigroup leapfrog Morgan Stanley to first place as adviser on European deals. Morgan Stanley is credited in the Thomson table with $482 billion of deals, a hair’s breadth ahead of Citigroup’s $473 billion.”

Backdated Options: Consent a Tender Offer? Need to Consider the SEC Staff

As we recently wrote about in the November-December issue of The Corporate Executive, increasing the strike price – or even fixing the exercise date – ordinarily cannot be effected without the consent/agreement of option holders (except, possibly, where there is a strong plan provision allowing the board/administering committee to unilaterally amend outstanding options), even to increase the exercise price, as deemed necessary or advisable to comply with applicable (e.g., tax) laws.

In an apparent effort to offset the foregone compensation, some companies are offering additional new options, restricted stock, or even cash bonuses in exchange for the consent. Under these circumstances, companies, in effect, are offering to buy existing stock options in exchange for materially amended options, etc. and/or cash. The Staff generally takes the position that option holders are presented with an economic investment decision, and not “merely a compensation decision,” if they are asked to consent to an increase in the exercise price of options – or even just adjust the exercise date.

The company’s presentation of the investment decision to the option holder implicates the SEC’s issuer tender offer Rule 13e-4 and requires the company to file a Schedule TO in advance of the offer being presented to the option holders. (Companies contemplating financial restatement may face another problem as tender offers for employee stock options filed on Schedule TO generally must be accompanied by current financial statements.)

It appears some companies might liberally interpret Corp Fin’s limited class 2001 exemptive order on repriced options as authorizing them to “fix” backdated options for (1) previous employees and (2) defer any cash consideration and/or substitute non-cash consideration into a subsequent year in order to avoid the ill tax consequences presented by §409A. These companies should think again because the exemptive order doesn’t say a thing about extending the offer to former employees or relief from “prompt payment.” Nor should these companies necessarily rely on the Clorox’s issuer tender offer that was recently conducted.

Availability of the SEC’s 2001 Exemptive Order

Back in 2001, the SEC adopted a limited class exemptive order to address issues implicated by exchange offers for repriced options. Reliance on the SEC’s exemptive order was conditioned on, among other things:

– the issuer being eligible to use Form S-8;
– the options subject to the exchange offer being issued under an employee benefit plan as defined in Rule 405 under the Securities Act; and
– any substitute securities offered in exchange for existing options being issued under such an employee benefit plan.

The availability of Form S-8 when issuing an option to a former employee of the issuer is based on that employee receiving the option while employed by the issuer and then exercising the option on S-8 after leaving. If the Form S-8 is not available (e.g. because the person is no longer an employee when a replacement option is issued), issuers will need to rely on another exception from the ’33 Act or register the issuance of the new options.

An issue also exists in construing the Rule 405 definition of employee benefit plan, which “means any written purchase, savings, option, bonus, appreciation, profit sharing, thrift, incentive, pension or similar plan or written compensation contract solely for employees, directors, general partners, trustees (where the registrant is a business trust), officers, or consultants […]” If former employees are being issued new options but do not fall into one of the other enumerated categories, new options issued to former employees will not be options issued under an employee benefit plan. Note that when Microsoft employees transferred their options to JP Morgan in late 2003, Microsoft amended its plan to remove the transferred options so that Microsoft would not rupture the 405 definition based on the “solely” requirement.

Prompt Payment Issues

When the exemptive order was issued in 2001, the scope of the order’s relief was limited to Rule 13e-4(f)(8)(i) and (ii), the all-holders and best-price provisions. The repricing offers that gave rise to this exemptive order, however, were generally structured to award substitute options on a deferred 6-month and one day payment schedule if certain conditions were met. This payment schedule was driven by the accounting policies in existence at that time. This payment schedule was also technically in conflict with the prompt payment rules. Based on the accounting requirements, however, the Corp Fin Staff generally did not raise objections to the payment schedule.

§Section 409A appears to require that any cash amounts paid in connection with an option repricing be paid in the year after the option repricing (i.e. offers completed in 2007 would require payment in 2008). If true, this payment schedule could contravene the SEC’s prompt payment rules. In the absence of any Staff relief, therefore, issuer tender offers conducted in accordance with IRS §409A are required to comply with the SEC’s prompt payment rules. Although issuers may have legitimate compensation concerns as to why they may wish to defer payment of tender offer consideration for an extended period, issuers should first consult with the Staff before tender offer payments are deferred.

Today is a National Holiday: SEC is Closed

Remember that today’s national day of mourning for former President Gerald Ford means that the SEC is closed and that any filings otherwise required to be made today will be due instead on January 3rd – as the SEC will treat today just like yesterday (ie. New Year’s Day) for 8-K purposes (ie. not a business day). EDGAR is closed too. And remember this old blog regarding counting days for tender offer purposes…