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As mergers capture the imagination of many investors and companies, the idea of getting smaller might seem counterintuitive. But corporate break-ups, or de-mergers, can be very attractive options for companies and their shareholders.
The rationale behind a spinoff, tracking stock or carve-out is that "the parts are greater than the whole." These corporate restructuring techniques, which involve the separation of a business unit or subsidiary from the parent, can help a company raise additional equity funds. A break-up can also boost a company's valuation by providing powerful incentives to the people who work in the separating unit, and help the parent's management to focus on core operations.
Most importantly, shareholders get better information about the business unit because it issues separate financial statements. This is particularly useful when a company's traditional line of business differs from the separated business unit. With separate financial disclosure, investors are better equipped to gauge the value of the parent corporation. The parent company might attract more investors and, ultimately, more capital.
Also, separating a subsidiary from its parent can reduce internal competition for corporate funds. For investors, that's great news: it curbs the kind of negative internal wrangling that can compromise the unity and productivity of a company.
For employees of the new separate entity, there is a publicly traded stock to motivate and reward them. Stock options in the parent often provide little incentive to subsidiary managers, especially because their efforts are buried in the firm's overall performance.
That said, de-merged firms are likely to be substantially smaller than their parents, possibly making it harder to tap credit markets and costlier finance that may be affordable only for larger companies. And the smaller size of the firm may mean it has less representation on major indexes, making it more difficult to attract interest from institutional investors.
Meanwhile, there are the extra costs that the parts of the business face if separated. When a firm divides itself into smaller units, it may be losing the synergy that it had as a larger entity. For instance, the division of expenses such as marketing, administration and research and development (R&D) into different business units may cause redundant costs without increasing overall revenues.
There are several restructuring methods: doing an outright sell-off, doing an equity carve-out, spinning off a unit to existing shareholders or issuing tracking stock. Each has advantages and disadvantages for companies and investors. All of these deals are quite complex.
A sell-off, also known as a divestiture, is the outright sale of a company subsidiary. Normally, sell-offs are done because the subsidiary doesn't fit into the parent company's core strategy. The market may be undervaluing the combined businesses due to a lack of synergy between the parent and subsidiary. As a result, management and the board decide that the subsidiary is better off under different ownership.
Besides getting rid of an unwanted subsidiary, sell-offs also raise cash, which can be used to pay off debt. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, corporate raiders would use debt to finance acquisitions. Then, after making a purchase they would sell-off its subsidiaries to raise cash to service the debt. The raiders' method certainly makes sense if the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. When it isn't, deals are unsuccessful.
More and more companies are using equity carve-outs to boost shareholder value. A parent firm makes a subsidiary public through an initial public offering (IPO) of shares, amounting to a partial sell-off. A new publicly-listed company is created, but the parent keeps a controlling stake in the newly traded subsidiary.
A carve-out is a strategic avenue a parent firm may take when one of its subsidiaries is growing faster and carrying higher valuations than other businesses owned by the parent. A carve-out generates cash because shares in the subsidiary are sold to the public, but the issue also unlocks the value of the subsidiary unit and enhances the parent's shareholder value.
The new legal entity of a carve-out has a separate board, but in most carve-outs, the parent retains some control. In these cases, some portion of the parent firm's board of directors may be shared. Since the parent has a controlling stake, meaning both firms have common shareholders, the connection between the two will likely be strong.
That said, sometimes companies carve-out a subsidiary not because it's doing well, but because it is a burden. Such an intention won't lead to a successful result, especially if a carved-out subsidiary is too loaded with debt, or had trouble even when it was a part of the parent and is lacking an established track record for growing revenues and profits.
Carve-outs can also create unexpected friction between the parent and subsidiary. Problems can arise as managers of the carved-out company must be accountable to their public shareholders as well as the owners of the parent company. This can create divided loyalties.
A spinoff occurs when a subsidiary becomes an independent entity. The parent firm distributes shares of the subsidiary to its shareholders through a stock dividend. Since this transaction is a dividend distribution, no cash is generated. Thus, spinoffs are unlikely to be used when a firm needs to finance growth or deals. Like the carve-out, the subsidiary becomes a separate legal entity with a distinct management and board.
Like carve-outs, spinoffs are usually about separating a healthy operation. In most cases, spinoffs unlock hidden shareholder value. For the parent company, it sharpens management focus. For the spinoff company, management doesn't have to compete for the parent's attention and capital. Once they are set free, managers can explore new opportunities.
Investors, however, should beware of throw-away subsidiaries the parent created to separate legal liability or to off-load debt. Once spinoff shares are issued to parent company shareholders, some shareholders may be tempted to quickly dump these shares on the market, depressing the share valuation.
A tracking stock is a special type of stock issued by a publicly held company to track the value of one segment of that company. The stock allows the different segments of the company to be valued differently by investors.
Let's say a slow-growth company trading at a low price-earnings ratio (P/E ratio) happens to have a fast growing business unit. The company might issue a tracking stock so the market can value the new business separately from the old one and at a significantly higher P/E rating.
Why would a firm issue a tracking stock rather than spinning-off or carving-out its fast growth business for shareholders? The company retains control over the subsidiary; the two businesses can continue to enjoy synergies and share marketing, administrative support functions, a headquarters and so on. Finally, and most importantly, if the tracking stock climbs in value, the parent company can use the tracking stock it owns to make acquisitions.
Still, shareholders need to remember that tracking stocks are class B, meaning they don't grant shareholders the same voting rights as those of the main stock. Each share of tracking stock may have only a half or a quarter of a vote. In rare cases, holders of tracking stock have no vote at all.
Next: Mergers and Acquisitions: Why They Can Fail »
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