Tesla Motors Inc (NASDAQ: TSLA) – Fairness Opinions: Fix Them Or Flush Them! by Aswath Damodaran

My post on the Tesla Solarcity Corp (NASDAQ:SCTY)  deal about the ineptitude and laziness that Lazard and Evercore brought to the valuation process did not win me any friends in the banking M&A world. Not surprisingly, it drew some pushback, not so much from bankers, but from journalists and lawyers, taking me to task for not understanding the context for these valuations. As Matt Levine notes in his Bloomberg column, where he cites my post, “a fairness opinion is not a real valuation, not a pure effort to estimate the value of a company from first principles and independent research” (Trust me. No one is setting the bar that high. I was looking for biased efforts using flawed principles and haphazard research and these valuation could not even pass that standard)  and that “they (Lazard and Evercore) are just bankers; their expertise is in pitching and sourcing and negotiating and executing deals — and in plugging in discount rates into preset spreadsheets — not in knowing the future”. (Bingo! So why are they doing these fairness opinions and charging millions of dollars for doing something that they not good at doing? And there is a difference between knowing the future, which no one does, and estimating the future, which is the essence of valuation.) If Matt is right, the problems run deeper than the bankers in this deal, raising questions about what the purpose of a   “fairness opinion” is and whether we it has outlived its usefulness (assuming that it was useful at some point).

Tesla Model 3
Image Credit: Tesla Motors
Tesla Motors

Fairness Opinions: The Rationale

What is a fairness opinion? I am not a lawyer and I don’t play intend to play one here, but it is perhaps best to revert back to the legal definition of the term. In an excellent article on the topic, Steven Davidoff defines a fairness opinion as an “opinion provided by an outsider that a transaction meets a threshold level of fairness from a financial perspective”. Implicit in this definition are the assumptions that the outsider is qualified to pass this judgment and that there is some reasonable standard for fairness.  In corporate control transactions (acquisition, leveraged buyout etc.), as practiced today, the fairness opinion is delivered (orally) to the board at the time of the transaction, and that presentation is usually followed by a written letter that summarizes the transaction term,and the appraiser’s assumptions and attests that the price paid is “fair from a financial point of view”. That certainly sounds like something we should all favor, especially in deals that have obvious conflicts of interest, such as management-led leveraged buyouts or transactions like the Tesla/Solar City deal, where the interests of Elon Musk and the rest of Tesla ‘sstockholders may diverge.

Note that while fairness opinions have become part and parcel of most corporate control transactions, they are not required either by regulation or law. As with so much of business law, especially relating to acquisitions, the basis for fairness opinions and their surge in usage can be traced back to Delaware Court judgments. In Smith vs Van Gorkom, a 1985 case, the court ruled against the board of directors of Trans Union Corporation, who voted for a leveraged buyout, and specifically took them to task for the absence of a fairness opinion from an independent appraiser. In effect, the case carved out a safe harbor for the companies by noting that “the liability could have been avoided had the directors elicited a fairness opinion from anyone in a position to know the firm’s value”.  I am sure that the judges who wrote these words did so with the best of intentions, expecting fairness opinions to become the bulwark against self-dealing in mergers and acquisitions. In the decades since, through a combination of bad banking practices, the nature of the legal process and confusion about the word “fairness”, fairness opinions, in my view, have not just lost their power to protect those that they were intended to but have become a shield used by managers and boards of directors against serious questions being raised about deals.

Fairness Opinions: Current Practice?

There are appraisers who take their mission seriously and evaluate the fairness of transactions in their opinions but the Tesla/Solar City valuations reflect not only how far we have strayed from the original idea of fairness but also how much bankers have lowered the bar on what constitutes acceptable practice.  Consider the process that Lazard and Evercore used by  to arrive at their fairness opinions in the Tesla/Solar City deal, and if Matt is right, they are not alone:

Tesla Motors Inc (TSLA) - Fairness Opinions
Tesla

What about this process is fair, if bankers are allowed to concoct discount rates, and how is it an opinion, if the numbers are supplied by management? And who exactly is protected if the end result is a range of values so large that any price that is paid can be justified?  And finally, if the contention is that the bankers were just using professional judgment, in what way is it professional to argue that Tesla will become the global economy (as Evercore is doing in its valuation)?

To the extent that what you see in the Tesla/Solar City deal is more the rule than the exception, I would argue that fairness opinions are doing more harm than good. By checking off a legally required box, they have become a way in which a board of directors buy immunization against legal consequences. By providing the illusion of oversight and an independent assessment, they are making shareholders too sanguine that their rights are being protected. Worse of all, this is a process where the worst (and least) scrupulous appraisers, over time, will drive out the best (and most principled) ones, because managers (and boards that do their bidding) will shop around until they find someone who will attest to the fairness of their deal, no matter how unfair it is. My interest in the process is therefore as much professional, as it is personal. I believe the valuation practices that we see in many fairness opinions are horrendous and are spilling over into the other valuation practices.

It is true that there are cases, where courts have been willing to challenge the “fairness” of fairness opinions, but they have been infrequent and  reserved for situations where there is an egregious conflict of interest. In an unusual twist, in a recent case involving the management buyout of Dell at $13.75 by Michael Dell and Silver Lake, Delaware Vice Chancellor Travis Lester ruled that the company should have been priced at $17.62, effectively throwing out the fairness opinion backing the deal. While the good news in Chancellor Lester’s ruling is that he was willing to take on fairness opinions, the bad news is that he might have picked the wrong case to make his stand and the wrong basis (that markets are short term and under price companies after they have made big investments) for challenging fairness

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