Examining Microsoft’s and Yahoo’s unspoken concerns

In this post, I discuss what I believe are some unspoken concerns that weigh on the decisions both Microsoft and Yahoo are making during this very exciting takeover battle.

Quick status update, largely derived from the excellent Wall Street Journal and its role as official public go-between:

     

  • Various forms of backchannel communication and price negotiation have been happening between the Microsoft and Yahoo teams this week — including via the press.
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  • Microsoft and Yahoo still disagree on price — Microsoft is at about $33/share and Yahoo is holding out for about $36/share, maybe more — and probably other issues, some of which I discuss in this post.
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  • Microsoft is threatening to launch its first truly hostile volley tomorrow unless the Yahoo board agrees to whatever deal is on the table now.
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  • Yahoo is still working hard to convince its institutional investors — who control the company’s ultimate destiny — that it can thrive standalone. Most notably, Yahoo is apparently close to an ad pact with Google that could significantly boost Yahoo’s independent revenue and margins.
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Now, reading a lot of the press coverage, you would think that the current standoff is all about Yahoo’s desire to stay independent, plus price. I think that misses the unspoken and quite complex issues that are likely bedeviling the boards of both companies as they wargame the various scenarios that could play out from here.

First, I think there is a very big and very real nonobvious concern that is a major roadblock to Yahoo accepting a Microsoft offer at almost any price:

A deal could be negotiated and announced and then fail to close.

The consequences of this scenario to Yahoo would be devastating, and it very well might happen.

Big mergers and acquisitions, particularly among public companies, particularlyamong public companies that have large shares of their respective markets, can take a year or more between the day the deal is signed and announced, to the day the deal is actually executed and closed.

During that year plus, all kinds of things can happen that could cause the deal to fall apart.

Microsoft and Yahoo will have to get approval from various US regulatory agencies, including some combination of the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice. This approval process will likely be rigorous, due to both companies’ large market shares and because of Microsoft’s historical antitrust issues. The US government could disallow the merger entirely, like when Microsoft tried to buy Intuit in the 1990’s, or impose conditions on the merger that would render it infeasible, and the deal could collapse.

Microsoft and Yahoo will also, as global companies, presumably need to get approval in other jurisdictions — certainly the European Union. The EU is currently harsher on these issues, and on Microsoft in particular, than the US government. If the EU refuses to approve the merger, or imposes various adverse conditions on it, the deal could collapse.

Microsoft shareholders could revolt. Opinions among the Microsoft employee ranks, executive team, and shareholder base vary wildly on the pros and cons of this takeover. Microsoft stock has been flat for years. A shareholder revolt could cause all kinds of changes at Microsoft, and the deal could collapse.

The broader economy could cave in and we could enter a serious recession.Some people think that’s fairly likely. If that happens, it could significantly change all kinds of assumptions that are built into the business rationale for this takeover, and the deal could collapse.

Microsoft could simply get cold feet for its own reasons. Perhaps during the closing process it discovers new information about Yahoo and decides the deal is a really bad idea. A conspiracy theorist might even say that Microsoft could choose to walk away at the last minute in order to permanently and deliberately cripple Yahoo — and such a conspiracy theorist could point to a few almost-mergers in Microsoft’s history that could justify such a fear. I am not saying that I am such a conspiracy theorist, but in all seriousness I bet there are at least a couple of them on Yahoo’s board right now. In such scenarios, the deal could collapse.

Typically, an acquisition target tries to wrap the merger agreement as tightly as possible to prevent any scenario where the deal collapses. For example, one can specify a large breakup fee, which the acquiror would have to pay to the target. In a merger like this, the breakup fee could be in the billions of dollars. And of courselitigation is reasonably likely in the wake of a deal collapse, especially if one side believes the other side has explicitly violated a binding contract.

However, none of those protections actually protect Yahoo all that well in the event that the deal collapses because it is disallowed by a government. And further, none of those protections actually do that much to protect Yahoo all that well even if the deal collapses for other reasons. Here’s why:

The minute a merger agreement is signed, an enormous amount of focus, time, and effort at the target company is redirected towards the implications of the merger. Legally both companies are supposed to continue to operate as fully independent companies with independent strategies until the merger closes, but in practice, a lot of people in the target company are going to be highly preoccupied — whether with formal roles in integration planning, or just due to the general distraction and anxiety that would be prompted in the halls at Yahoo at the prospect of actually being merged into Microsoft. It is extraordinarily difficult for a management team at such a time to keep an employee base focused on the standalone business — in fact, I think it’s basically impossible.

So imagine what happens if the deal is signed, a significant percentage of Yahoo’s internal bandwidth over the next 12 months refocuses onto the implications of the merger, and the deal collapses. Yahoo would be simultaneously behind in many of the key initiatives it would have normally pursued to be competitive as a standalone company, and highly disorganized, fragmented, and demoralized for the Microsoft-less road ahead.

Suppose the deal collapse triggers a big breakup fee — suppose $3 billion in breakup fee cash drops into Yahoo’s lap. So what? A traumatized corporate victim of merger interruptus is going to have far larger problems than cash, even a large amount of cash, can fix. Same with a lawsuit.

There are other things that Microsoft could do to offset these concerns.

The most obvious thing Microsoft could do is execute a commercial agreement with Yahoo simultaneous with a merger agreement. The commercial agreement would require Microsoft to shut down its own Internet efforts and instead use Yahoo’s — completely independent of the merger. Microsoft Search would shut down and Microsoft would point all of its users at Yahoo Search, and so on for all of the various overlapping product lines. Yahoo would of course share revenue with Microsoft in return.

This would almost completely protect Yahoo from all of the collapsed deal scenarios. Even if the deal collapses, Yahoo still has an enormously valuable commercial contract to be Microsoft’s de facto Internet arm — in essence, that contract is Yahoo’s compensation for taking on the risk of the merger going through.

You can also see why Microsoft wouldn’t want to agree to this.

Other than that, the Yahoo board may be simply trying to get Microsoft to pay a higher price than even Yahoo thinks their company is worth, in order to offset this risk. There obviously would be a price that would be so good that the merger close risk would be worth taking. I’m not sure what that price is, I’m not sure whether Yahoo’s institutional shareholders are willing to hold out for it, and I’m not sure whether Microsoft will be willing to pay it.

But we’re probably going to find out.

There is another, related, enormous issue in Microsoft’s mind.

That is the issue of timing of the regulatory approval process.

If the entire merger could be approved and closed before the new US president takes office in January 2009, that would be wonderful for Microsoft.

I think that’s one of the reasons why Microsoft made their offer when they did — in January 2008, a full year before the US presidential handover.

I also think that’s one of the reasons Microsoft is so frustrated with Yahoo’s apparent sluggishness — dragging this into May at the very earliest for a negotiated deal.

also think that’s one of the reasons why Yahoo has been so apparently sluggish — Yahoo is probably thinking that the longer this gets dragged out, the less likely the deal could be approved before the US presidential handover, and therefore the less likely Microsoft is going to consider it a clean deal, and the less likely Microsoft is going to want to go through with it.

Because just like Yahoo is worried about the consequences if the deal falls through — so is Microsoft, one would imagine, for many of the same reasons. Merger interruptus bites both ways.

What’s the big deal with the US presidential handover? The Bush administration is known to be quite friendly to large companies, large mergers, and Microsoft. Any Democratic administration would probably be notably more hostile to this kind of merger than the current regime. And even a McCain administration might have different views from the current government — who knows? That very uncertainty is the issue.

The most likely outcome of the arrival of a new US administration is that a merger like this certainly won’t become more likely to be approved, and will possibly, or probably, become less likely to succeed.

There are a few other implications one can draw from this.

One is that Microsoft probably would have been willing to pay more for a friendly deal early in this process, when there was more time to get the deal closed before January 2009.

Yahoo may have operated against its own best interest in getting the optimum friendly price by delaying so long.

On the other hand, Yahoo may be pushing the timing out so far that Microsoft will become increasingly disincented to proceed.

Or, perhaps this is why Microsoft hasn’t yet gone fully hostile — they don’t want to risk prolonging the approval process, and a hostile takeover will certainly take longer than a friendly one.

And, correspondingly, if Microsoft does go hostile, it will be a very real expression of Microsoft’s need to do this deal despite considerable risk that a new US administration, particularly a Democratic one, would not permit it to proceed.

More to come!