February 14, 2024

Disclosure: SEC Sanctions SPAC for Non-Disclosure of Preliminary Merger Negotiations

Deciding whether a public company needs to disclose preliminary merger negotiations is always a challenging process, but the SEC recently announced an enforcement proceeding against a SPAC that serves as a reminder that getting that decision wrong can have a significant downside. Here’s an excerpt from the SEC’s press release announcing the action:

According to the SEC’s order, Northern Star stated in its SEC filings that neither the company, nor anyone acting on its behalf, had initiated any substantive discussions with any potential target companies prior to the IPO. However, the SEC’s order finds that Northern Star had engaged in discussions with a target company and that company’s controlling shareholder in connection with a potential SPAC business combination dating back to December 2020 and continuing for several weeks. Furthermore, according to the SEC’s order, after announcing a merger agreement with the target company, Northern Star did not adequately disclose its interactions with the target company in its Form S-4 filings.

The company consented, on a neither admit nor deny basis, to an order to cease and desist from violations of Section 17(a)(2) of the Securities Act and agreed to pay a $1.5 million civil penalty if it closes a merger transaction. This Bryan Cave blog offers some key takeaways from the proceeding. Here’s an excerpt:

The lesson is clear – a SPAC should defer discussions with targets until it completes its IPO. The SEC will take seriously violations of the restriction on pre-IPO acquisition discussions by a SPAC without adequate disclosure. Further, such disclosures could result in delays, draw SEC comments and deter potential acquisition targets from engaging in acquisition discussions with a SPAC.

While this is particularly important for SPACs and blank check companies, other public companies should also take care in their SEC disclosures when addressing the potential for future mergers and acquisitions.

The blog goes on to list several specific lessons to be drawn from the case, and we’ve also discussed the issues surrounding disclosure of preliminary merger negotiations beginning on page 400 of the Practical M&A Treatise. The SEC typically cuts companies some slack when dealing with disclosure of preliminary merger negotiations, but that latitude doesn’t extend to situations in which the company is buying or selling its securities.

John Jenkins