Transaction Structure and Its Impact on Seller Liquidity in M&A

Transaction Structure Impacts M&A Valuations 

Mergers and acquisitions (M&A) occur when one company purchases or combines with another, usually resulting in a change of ownership and control. M&A goals include creating shareholder value by growing profit, gaining market share, expanding into new markets or product lines, and accessing technologies.

A transaction’s structure refers to the combination of assets used to compensate the seller for the fair market value of the business being sold. In a complete sale, the seller is often compensated through a combination of cash, equity instruments, debt instruments, intangible assets, and tangible assets.

Liquidity refers to the ease and speed with which an asset or investment can be converted into cash. 

It measures how quickly an individual or organization can access their funds by selling an asset.

Types of Transaction Structures

Transaction structures are categorized into three types: unstructured, typically structured, and highly structured. These classifications shape the composition of the payout a seller receives based on the mix of assets involved.

An unstructured transaction is where the buyer acquires the target company by offering an all-cash payment in exchange for ownership. In an all-cash transaction, investors and sellers employ different methods to assess a company’s valuation and negotiate a price.

Financial performance, historical cash flows, tangible and intangible assets, and market multiples are common factors in this process. Public companies also have their share price, but negotiating this price is possible, especially in deals that involve significant stakes. In this structure, the buyer is assuming they can generate a return on investment. This return will likely come from revenue synergies, growth, or cost synergies to increase profitability.

In a typically structured M&A transaction, assets are diversified among cash, equity, debt, tangible, and intangible assets. The valuation is a blend of these components allowing both the buyer and seller to negotiate the final price based on the expected return of non-cash transaction components.

For example, a business with a total value of $100 million would be considered typically structured if the sellers received $60 million in cash at close, $20 million of equity in the acquiring entity, $10 million worth of a promissory note paid to the sellers (note holders) over two years, $7 million worth of employment agreements and bonus potential, and the $3 million company yacht at the time of sale.

This approach allows buyers to reduce risk and optimize capital allocation, as well as incentivizes the sellers to support the company’s long-term growth.

A transaction is highly structured when the majority of the fair market value is placed in non-cash assets such as intangibles, equity, and debt. The valuation is more complex, and valuation methods involve assessing the future cash flows of intangible assets, such as intellectual property (IP), contracts and agreements, research and development (R&D), licenses and permits, and customer relationships. For example, a large tech company would acquire a startup with cutting-edge software and IP to enhance the buyer’s product offering, just like a large consumer goods company would acquire a niche brand to increase sales of the niche brand across the large brand’s sales channels.

In a highly structured transaction, the buyer assumes they will achieve a desired return on investment (ROI) within a specified timeline primarily from the acquired intangible assets based on factors like the ability to license the intellectual property (IP) and the market demand on the products associated with the intangible assets.

Equity, Debt, and Intangibles Drive Transaction Structures

Equity-Driven Structures

An equity-driven structure emphasizes the exchange of ownership stakes in the acquiring and target company. Equity instruments are financial securities that represent ownership in a company and give the equity holder a claim to the company’s assets and earnings. Equity instruments include:

  1. Options: Financial derivatives that give the holder the right but not the obligation to buy or sell a specific amount of a company’s stock at a predetermined price within a specified timeline.
  2. Preferred or common equity: Carries preferences or rights over common stock, which include priority in receiving dividends, liquidation preferences, and other rights that may be outlined in the company’s bylaws.
  3. Equity: Public companies’ equity is traded on stock exchanges and subject to market fluctuations, while private companies’ equity is not publicly traded and involves negotiated agreements among investors.
  4. Restricted or controlled stock: Shares that are subject to certain restrictions or conditions on their transferability or sale.

Equity-driven M&A structures attract strategic investors who are typically corporations or businesses looking to expand their market presence, product portfolio, or geographical reach. Strategic investors acquire companies that align with long-term strategic goals.

Consider an example of a large professional services firm acquiring a mid-sized professional services firm. The larger firm would offer profit-sharing units or equity to the mid-sized firm. The mid-sized firm would consider this deal because it creates access to more potential clients and can smooth out the volatility of dividend payments for more niche service lines. 

Intangible Asset-Driven Structures

Intangible asset–driven structures usually create the lowest near-term fair market value but the greatest long-term upside. Intangible assets also possess a slightly riskier profile. Several types of intangible assets and payouts exist, each with distinct characteristics.

  1. Bonus payouts: Additional financial rewards given to key employees or executives as a form of extra compensation, which is based on their performance, achievements, or contributions.
  2. Employment agreements: Legal contracts that outline the terms and conditions of employment for the target company’s key employees after the acquisition.
  3. Earnouts: Arrangements where a portion of the purchase price is contingent upon the future performance of the acquired company and is paid to the seller based on achieving specific financial or operational milestones after the completion of the acquisition.
  4. Reselling agreement: Allows the acquiring company to continue selling the target company’s products or services.
  5. Revenue sharing agreement: Outlines how the revenues generated from products or services will be shared between the acquiring and target companies.
  6. Royalty agreement: Payment of royalties to the target company for the use of its intellectual property.

Large corporations seeking strategic acquisitions focus on intangible assets that complement their existing businesses. A tech giant aiming to strengthen its position in the smartphone industry would acquire a startup known for its innovative smartphone display technology and a portfolio of patents related to this technology. Out of an intangible asset–driven structure, the tech giant would gain a competitive advantage in the smartphone industry and increase returns through sales related to reselling, revenue share, and royalty agreements.

Debt-Driven Structures

In a debt-driven M&A structure, the seller becomes the financier or lender to the company and the buyer. This differs from a leveraged buyout when the note holder is a private lender, not the original seller. In this scenario, the seller transfers control of the business and receives a note entitling that seller to a debt repayment secured by the business just sold, the assets of the buyer, or a combination of the two. A majority debt structure is only common for distressed or semi-distressed assets. Debt instruments include: 

  1. Senior secured debt: Takes precedence in repayment over other debt instruments, often backed by collateral like real estate, and it usually offers lower interest rates due to its lower risk for lenders.
  2. Debentures: Unsecured debts backed by the buyer’s general creditworthiness rather than specific collateral.
  3. Convertible note: Allows the seller to convert the debt into equity (typically common stock) of the acquiring company at a later stage.
  4. Promissory note: A written promise to pay a specific sum of money by a certain date. It outlines the terms of repayment, the principal amount, and the interest rate.

Debt-driven transaction structures are less common in private equity markets. Debt is often a component of the structure but rarely the majority of the fair market value. This is because sellers and buyers generally have access to the same set of debt when they own the same or largely comparable assets.

Transaction Structure Components Effect on Seller Liquidity 

M&A sellers want to know the likelihood they will receive a non-cash asset’s perceived fair market value. For this reason, each part of a transaction structure should be analyzed based on the likelihood that the asset can be liquidated for cash near or equal to the fair market value determined at the time of a transaction. Extremes of non-cash liquidity examples include common stock in Alphabet, the parent company of Google, and shares in a private equity business with $1 million in revenue. Google shares can be sold on a public exchange with relative ease and may only be limited by the SEC Rule 144 volume and timing restrictions. Whereas shares of a $1 million private equity company will likely not be liquid until the company grows significantly. A red-green-yellow ranking of general transaction structure elements and the likelihood that these can be converted to their associated cash value is presented below. Green suggests the highest likelihood, such as in the Alphabet example, and red indicates a lower likelihood, such as with the small privately owned company. 

Business owners need to understand that transaction structures have a significant impact on the fair market value of an asset and the ultimate return a seller can receive from the sale of their business. This can be in either the buyer’s or the seller’s favor. Both parties need to consider what ultimate payout they seek and their risk appetite to achieve it. Cash, equity, debt, and intangible assets can all be structured together to create a wide variety of possible outcomes and payouts for sellers. These require careful consideration by the seller.
One of the best examples of how an M&A transaction can be structured and still benefit the buyer and seller more than an all-cash transaction is when Alphabet bought Double Click. At the time of the transaction, digital advertising was still the minority of spending for most brands. But as this budget item grew, Google was able to accelerate its market share more quickly. The transaction structure of the Double Click acquisition is not public, but a more structured transaction would certainly have benefited both parties.