Evaluation of Acquisition Targets

Valuing an acquisition candidate is similar to valuing any investment. The analyst estimates the incremental cash flows, determines an appropriate risk-adjusted discount rate, and then computes the net present value (NPV). If firm A is acquiring firm B, for example, then the acquisition makes economic sense if the value of the combined firm is greater than the value of firm A plus the value of firm B. Synergy is said to exist when the cash flow of the combined firm is greater than the sum of the cash flows for the two firms as separate companies. The gain from the merger is the present value of this difference in cash flows.

Sources of Gains from Acquisitions

The gains from an acquisition may result from one or more of the following five categories:1) revenue enhancement, 2) cost reductions, 3) lower taxes, 4) changing capital requirements, or 5) a lower cost of capital. Increased revenues may come from marketing gains, strategic benefits, and market power. Marketing gains arise from more effective advertising, economies of distribution, and a better mix of products. Strategic benefits represent opportunities to enter new lines of business. Finally, a merger may reduce competition, thereby increasing market power. Such mergers, of course, may run afoul of antitrust legislation.

A larger firm may be able to operate more efficiently than two smaller firms, thereby reducing costs. Horizontal mergers may generate economies of scale. This means that the average production cost will fall as production volume increases. A vertical merger may allow a firm to decrease costs by more closely coordinating production and distribution. Finally, economies may be achieved when firms have complementary resourcesor example, when one firm has excess production capacity and another has insufficient capacity.

Tax gains in mergers may arise because of unused tax losses, unused debt capacity, surplus funds, and the write-up of depreciable assets. The tax losses of target corporations can be used to offset the acquiring corporation’s future income. These tax losses can be used to offset income for a maximum of 15 years or until the tax loss is exhausted. Only tax losses for the previous three years can be used to offset future income.

Tax loss carry-forwards can motivate mergers and acquisitions. A company that has earned profits may find value in the tax losses of a target corporation that can be used to offset the income it plans to earn. A merger may not, however, be structured solely for tax purposes. In addition, the acquirer must continue to operate the pre-acquisition business of the company in a net loss position. The tax benefits may be less than their “face value,” not only because of the time value of money, but also because the tax loss carry-forwards might expire without being fully utilized.

Tax advantages can also arise in an acquisition when a target firm carries assets on its books with basis, for tax purposes, below their market value. These assets could be more valuable, for tax purposes, if they were owned by another corporation that could increase their tax basis following the acquisition. The acquirer would then depreciate the assets based on the higher market values, in turn, gaining additional depreciation benefits.

Interest payments on debt are a tax-deductible expense, whereas dividend payments from equity ownership are not. The existence of a tax advantage for debt is an incentive to have greater use of debt, as opposed to equity, as the means of financing merger and acquisition transactions. Also, a firm that borrows much less than it could may be an acquisition target because of its unused debt capacity. While the use of financial leverage produces tax benefits, debt also increases the likelihood of financial distress in the event that the acquiring firm cannot meet its interest payments on the acquisition debt.

Finally, a firm with surplus funds may wish to acquire another firm. The reason is that distributing the money as a dividend or using it to repurchase shares will increase income taxes for shareholders. With an acquisition, no income taxes are paid by shareholders.

Acquiring firms may be able to more efficiently utilize working capital and fixed assets in the target firm, thereby reducing capital requirements and enhancing profitability. This is particularly true if the target firm has redundant assets that may be divested.

The cost of debt can often be reduced when two firms merge. The combined firm will generally have reduced variability in its cash flows. Therefore, there may be circumstances under which one or the other of the firms would have defaulted on its debt, but the combined firm will not. This makes the debt safer, and the cost of borrowing may decline as a result. This is termed the coinsurance effect.

Diversification is often cited as a benefit in mergers. Diversification by itself, however, does not create any value because stockholders can accomplish the same thing as the merger by buying stock in both firms.

Valuation Procedures

The procedure for valuing an acquisition candidate depends on the source of the estimated gains. Different sources of synergy have different risks. Tax gains can be estimated fairly accurately and should be discounted at the cost of debt. Cost reductions through operating efficiencies can also be determined with some confidence. Such savings should be discounted at a normal weighted average cost of capital. Gains from strategic benefits are difficult to estimate and are often highly uncertain. A discount rate greater than the overall cost of capital would thus be appropriate.

The net present value (NPV) of the acquisition is equal to the gains less the cost of the acquisition. The cost depends on whether cash or stock is used as payment. The cost of an acquisition when cash is used is just the amount paid. The cost of the merger when common stock is used as the consideration (the payment) is equal to the percentage of the new firm that is owned by the previous shareholders in the acquired firm multiplied by the value of the new firm. In a cash merger the benefits go entirely to the acquiring firm, whereas in a stock-for-stock exchange the benefits are shared by the acquiring and acquired firms.

Whether to use cash or stock depends on three considerations. First, if the acquiring firm’s management believes that its stock is overvalued, then a stock acquisition may be cheaper. Second, a cash acquisition is usually taxable, which may result in a higher price. Third, the use of stock means that the acquired firm will share in any gains from merger; if the merger has a negative NPV, however, then the acquired firm will share in the loss.

In valuing acquisitions, the following factors should be kept in mind. First, market values must not be ignored. Thus, there is no need to estimate the value of a publicly traded firm as a separate entity. Second, only those cash flows that are incremental are relevant to the analysis. Third, the discount rate used should reflect the risk associated with the incremental cash flows. Therefore, the acquiring firm should not use its own cost of capital to value the cash flows of another firm. Finally, acquisition may involve significant investment banking fees and costs.

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