Distressed M&A And Corporate Strategy: Lessons from Marvel Entertainment Group’s Bankruptcy

Joseph Calandro Jr.

Fordham University – Gabelli Center for Global Security Analysis

September 26, 2016


[drizzle]Purpose: This paper illustrates the viability of distressed M&A by way of case study utilizing the modern Graham and Dodd valuation approach.

Design/methodology/approach: The paper presents a distressed acquisition case study of the 1996 Marvel Entertainment Group (Marvel) bankruptcy. It draws on previously published Graham and Dodd methodological materials as well as a financial case study of Marvel that was prepared at the time. The valuation presented in this paper is the sole work of its author.

Findings: The case study supports the view that distressed M&A can be a viable corporate strategy alternative. It also demonstrates how a multi-layered valuation approach such as Graham and Dodd can be ideal for identifying value that may be hidden in the confusion and distress of bankruptcy.

Practical and research implications: The case study illustrates, first, the viability of distressed M&A as a corporate strategy alternative, and second, the valuation insights that the modern Graham and Dodd approach can produce in a distressed setting.

Originality and value: This is the first paper that we are aware that applies Graham and Dodd-based distressed M&A valuation to corporate strategy. This paper is an updated and revised version of a paper that was previously published in “Strategy & Leadership,” Vol. 37, No. 7 (2009), pp. 23-32; meaning, it contains a fair amount of new material including an Appendix on Estimating Goodwill and Franchise Lifecycles.

Distressed M&A Corporate Strategy Marvel Bankruptcy

Distressed M&A And Corporate Strategy: Lessons from Marvel’s Bankruptcy – Introduction

“Liquidating Value. The amount which would be available for a security if the business were wound up and the assets turned into cash. Is less than ‘book value,’ because allowance must be made for shrinkage in the value of the various kinds of assets if sold during a short period.” — Benjamin Graham and Spencer Meredith

“Conventional wisdom is generally very bad wisdom when it comes to value investing in general and distress investing in particular.” — Martin J. Whitman and Fernando Diz

“Sometimes Mr. Market just doesn’t seem to pay attention (isn’t that right, efficient markets’ theorists?).” — James Grant

Investing is distressed securities has been a core value investing competency from the time Benjamin Graham founded the discipline, and many of today’s top value investors continue in this tradition. From time-to-time, corporate development opportunities arise in the distressed investment area. Consider, for example, Federated Department Stores’ 1994 take-over of R.H. Macy as Macy emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Such examples could be a reason why distressed-based corporate development opportunities have received some attention in the financial press. However, distressed M&A does have unique characteristics that corporate managers must be aware of including: (1) valuing distressed opportunities from both liquidation and going-concern perspectives, (2) negotiating and bargaining in a bankruptcy setting, and (3) understanding distress-related risks.

To illustrate the kinds of opportunities sometimes found in distressed M&A, this paper revisits the colorful bankruptcy of the Marvel Entertainment Group, Inc. (Marvel). It begins by briefly discussing how Marvel became a distressed investment, and then proceeds to a valuation of Marvel from both liquidation and going-concern perspectives to assess a proposed bankruptcy reorganization plan. The paper concludes with a discussion of distressed-related corporate M&A risks and opportunities.

Distressed M&A Corporate Strategy Marvel Bankruptcy

Marvel Entertainment Group

At its core, Marvel is a publisher of comic books featuring proprietary characters such as Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, etc. Comic books have a very long and interesting history, and were especially popular in the late 1930s to the late 1940s (known as the Golden Age of Comics), and from the late 1960s to the early 1970s (the Silver Age of Comics). Comic books experienced another era of popularity in the mid-1980s to approximately 1993-1994, which some refer to as a “boom and bust” due to the speculative interest in comic books during this time, particularly with respect to the comics of earlier eras (i.e., those published in the Golden and Silver Ages). Comic book publishers took note of the demand during the boom, assumed it would continue indefinitely and flooded the market with new comics, which ultimately ended in a bust.

In this environment financier Ron Perelman acquired Marvel in 1989, for $82.5 million in a leveraged buyout (debt, of course, being the fuel of every boom-bust cycle). Mr. Perelman quickly set about improving the firm’s performance and building a diversified youth entertainment company. For example, he acquired a trading card company, a manufacturer of sports and entertainment stickers, and other comic book companies. He also acquired a significant interest in a children’s toy company (Toy Biz) to manufacture Marvel-based action figures. Initially, this strategy seemed to work, but it began to falter in 1994 as boom turned to bust. The demand that ignited the boom was based, in part, on the scarcity of older comic books: Many people who read comic books in their childhood years (including this author) did not save their books, which were frequently either discarded, lost or simply ruined, and as a result those books became scarce. When those children grew into adulthood and started buying those same books again as collectables (not including this author) the increased demand and relatively low level of supply caused prices to increase, sometimes dramatically. This same dynamic occurred in baseball (and other trading) cards. However, once the speculative boom ran its course, and prices started to fall,Marvel’s diversified businesses experienced performance issues, which were magnified by the amount of debt Mr. Perelman used to fund his “diversified youth entertainment company.” Marvel’s debt-load ultimately led it to file for bankruptcy (specifically, Chapter 11 of

the bankruptcy code) in December of 1996.

Liquidation Value

In bankruptcy proceedings a firm’s management has the exclusive right, for a limited period of time, to file a reorganization plan, which “is essentially a proposal to exchange the firm’s existing financial claims for a new basket of claims (possibly including cash). The firm’s immediate objective is to reduce the total amount of debt in the capital structure.”13 Therefore, in the Marvel bankruptcy, Ron Perelman filed a reorganization plan that contained three parts. Due to space considerations this paper will only consider one of the parts: the offer to invest $350 million in Marvel so long as Mr. Perelman maintains at least an 80%ownership in the firm, which implied a going concern value (equity) of $431 million. The structure of this offer is strategically significant because that level of ownership allows Mr. Perelman to retain the benefit of Marvel’s valuable net operating loss carry-forwards (NOLs).14 However, the value of the offer implies a pre-offer value of Marvel of $0.85 per share, as will be explained below, which did not reconcile with the stock market price at the time. In evaluating this plan, it is important to first distinguish between liquidation value and going concern value.

If a firm is deemed not viable it will be liquidated under Chapter 7 of the bankruptcy code. A test of whether this should occur involves an analysis of a firm’s liquidation and going concern values. Going concern value in this context refers to the value of

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