As a result of the well-publicized scandals involving LIBOR rate manipulation, British regulators announced plans in July 2017 to phase-out LIBOR by 2021 and replace it with a more reliable benchmark.  In addition to other markets, the LIBOR phase-out will have a broad impact on the $4 trillion syndicated loan market, including currently existing loan documents that extend past 2021.  Specifically, in the case of loan documents that reference a LIBOR rate and automatically fall back to prime or base rate if LIBOR is unavailable, the permanent phase-out of LIBOR will likely lead to the imposition of a higher interest rate if this fallback language is not amended.  However, because LIBOR’s replacement has not yet been determined and the phase-out is at least three years away, it is probably premature at this time for borrowers to proactively seek amendments to their credit agreements.  That being said, there are a few steps that borrowers can take now to be prepared.

BACKGROUND

The London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) has been the global borrowing interest rate benchmark for nearly 50 years.  Many borrowers pay interest under their credit agreements based upon a LIBOR interest rate, which is typically defined first by reference to the screen rate published by ICE Benchmark Administration Limited (IBA), and then to an alternative reference source if the screen rate is unavailable.  Although the LIBOR rate is intended to represent the rate of interest at which major banks in London actually loan funds to each other, the financial crisis liquidity in the LIBOR market has dropped significantly to the point where more than 70% of 3-month LIBOR submissions are based on the judgment of the submitting bank as opposed to actual transactions.  Due to this lack of liquidity and the negative publicity surrounding the LIBOR scandal, the United Kingdom Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), which has regulated LIBOR since April 2013, urged the phase-out of LIBOR by the end of 2021 and a transition to an alternative reference rate based on market transactions.

The uncertainty surrounding LIBOR’s fate is twofold.  First, although the FCA has encouraged the phase-out of LIBOR, it has stressed that the phase-out is not mandatory and, further, that the IBA may continue to produce LIBOR rates after 2021 if it chooses to do so.  Because of this, some commentators believe that LIBOR may continue to be quoted well beyond 2021 side-by-side with LIBOR’s replacement.  Second, the FCA has put the burden of finding LIBOR’s replacement primarily on market participants, who have not yet settled on an alternative rate.  The front runners at this point appear to be the Broad Treasury Financing Rate (BTFR) in the U.S., and the Sterling Overnight Index Average (SONIA) in the U.K., each of which is being considered as a replacement rate in the derivatives market.  However, neither of these rates are ready replacements for LIBOR in the lending market because (i) each is an overnight rate as opposed to LIBOR, which is quoted for seven borrowing periods ranging from overnight to one year, and (ii) each is based on past transactions (i.e., each is “backward looking”) as opposed to LIBOR, which is a stated rate for a forward-looking term.

WHAT BORROWERS CAN DO TO PREPARE

The first thing borrowers can do is review their existing credit agreements to see how the interest rate is determined if LIBOR no longer exists.  Although some credit agreements, such as the LSTA and LMA models, contain provisions that fall back to a waterfall of alternative reference rates if LIBOR is unavailable, such as a reference bank rate (i.e., an average of quotes of rates in the wholesale markets), the lenders’ cost of funds, or an alternative rate, many do not contain any fallback other than to simply default to base or prime rate loans.  As these rates are historically higher than the LIBOR rate, they can lead to the borrower incurring a significantly higher interest expense than it anticipated at the time the borrower entered into the loan.  However, even if a borrower is faced with a potential rate increase, given the uncertainty of both the timing of LIBOR’s phase-out and the replacement for the LIBOR rate, it is probably premature for it to approach its lender seeking an amendment.

If a borrower sees a potential issue with its LIBOR fallback language, it should closely monitor the marketplace to determine when and if it needs to take action.  Given the magnitude that LIBOR’s phase-out will have on the loan market, it is highly unlikely that the market will not do all that it can well in advance of the phase-out to effectuate a smooth transition to an alternative standard.  In particular, it is likely that LIBOR’s replacement will be determined well in advance of 2021 so borrowers can assess the impact on their credit agreements and be prepared to take appropriate action (e.g., seeking an amendment or prepaying the loan).  Further, it is also likely that the FCA will have signaled whether it will continue to quote LIBOR after the phase-out and, if so, for how long.  Depending on the length of time FCA continues to do so, borrowers with loans that mature past 2021 may be able to avoid amending their agreements entirely.  Finally, by the time the phase-out is implemented, the market will have likely settled on a standard for appropriate LIBOR fallback language, which should then be much easier to incorporate into existing loan documents than starting from scratch.  In short, although the temptation as a borrower may be to get ahead of the potential problem by proactively seeking an amendment, the best course of action is to monitor the situation and take a wait-and-see approach. One caveat to this is the situation where a borrower is already in the process of amending its credit agreement for other reasons, in which case it may as well amend the LIBOR fallback provision since the marginal cost of doing so is minimal.

 

Not too long ago, technology was considered a “vertical” market filled with companies that met the needs of the “technology” industry (think Microsoft, Dell, Cisco, Intel, and IBM).  However, technological products and services have evolved to the point of serving a “horizontal” market, having become an important aspect of many different types of businesses across a wide variety of industries and sectors (think fintech, healthtech, cleantech, autotech, edtech, etc.) and, by extension, M&A transactions.

For example, deals in the media industry increasingly are focused on the digital media aspects, particularly given the decline in demand for print media.  Likewise, parties to acquisitions in the financial services industry often pay close attention to the protection of proprietary investment strategies, data protection, trade names, and customized software.  Even manufacturers and other traditionally “non-tech” companies are leaning on technology more and more in order to streamline their business processes, manage and analyze data better, and to protect themselves from cyber-attacks.

This trend towards a “horizontal” market only looks to accelerate as technology becomes more and more embedded in businesses of all stripes, as presaged by the $13.7 billion purchase of Whole Foods by Amazon.com Inc. this year.  Similarly, private equity interest in tech and tech-enabled businesses has grown in recent years, particularly for more “stable” businesses such as software companies that generate recurring revenue or that serve other businesses.

Given the growing proportion of M&A deals that are considered to be “tech” deals (even where non-technology companies are involved), middle market businesses of all kinds that are evaluating the possibility of a sale or, conversely, looking for potential targets to acquire cannot afford to overlook the importance of technology as a key asset.

High-level legal concerns often revolve around the target’s ownership or right to use key technological assets, as well as the level of protection and ability to transfer the same.  This includes making sure that all owned intellectual property of the business is properly registered with the USPTO or copyright office in the name of the appropriate entity, and that all renewals and maintenance fees have been paid.  Additionally, acquirers should check that employees and, particularly, key independent contractors of the target have assigned their rights in and to all key intellectual properties to the target.  Inbound licenses that are material to the business, as well as revenue generating outbound licenses, should be reviewed to determine assignability.  It goes without saying that it is critical to ascertain whether the target has any existing or suspected infringement claims, as well as any security interests or encumbrances affecting its key technology assets.

Further, to the extent key technologies are held within a joint venture between the target and a third party, an acquirer should consider whether its business model would allow it to “step into the shoes” of the target vis a vis the joint venture versus the extent to which the acquirer could readily extract the technological assets and/or wind-down the joint venture.

The takeaway here is when engaging in M&A transactions – whether in the middle market or otherwise – ignore technology at your peril.  Those companies (even “non-tech” ones) that can demonstrate a strong command of their technological assets should increase their attractiveness as targets as we move into the future.  Conversely, acquirers that understand their own technology “gaps,” can quickly assess the target’s key technological assets and grasp how such assets will improve the integrated business post-closing will be better positioned to focus their due diligence efforts, minimize indemnification risks, and ultimately achieve the intended synergies.

New York entrepreneurs in the virtual currency space must be careful to follow New York’s licensing requirements enacted under Financial Services Law Sections 102, 104, 201, 206, 301, 302, 309, and 408. Under the new regulations issued by the New York State Department of Financial Services, a business that engages in “Virtual Currency Business Activity” must be licensed by the New York State Department of Financial Services.  A business is engaged in Virtual Currency Business Activity if it:

  1. receives virtual currency for transmissions or transmits virtual currency;
  2. stores, holds, or maintains custody or control of virtual currency on behalf of others;
  3. buys and sells virtual currency;
  4. exchanges or converts something of value, into virtual currencies; or
  5. controls, administers, or issues a virtual currency.

However, businesses chartered under New York Banking Law and “approved by the superintendent to engage in Virtual Currency Business Activity,” as well as “merchants and consumers” that use virtual currencies for investment purposes or to buy and sell goods or services are exempt from the licensing requirement.

The license application fee to register as a business engaged in Virtual Currency Business Activity is $5,000.00 and is nonrefundable.  The application must include:

  1. the exact name of the applicant, including any doing business as name;
  2. a list of all of the applicant’s affiliates and an organization chart illustrating the relationship among the applicant and such affiliates;
  3. a list of, and detailed biographical information for, each individual applicant and each director, principal officer, principal stockholder, and principal beneficiary of the applicant;
  4. a background report prepared by an independent investigatory agency for each individual applicant, and each principal officer, principal stockholder, and principal beneficiary of the applicant, as applicable;
  5. for each individual applicant; for each principal officer, principal stockholder, and principal beneficiary of the applicant, as applicable; and for all individuals to be employed by the applicant who have access to any customer funds, whether denominated in fiat currency or virtual currency: (i) a set of completed fingerprints, or a receipt indicating the vendor (which vendor must be acceptable to the superintendent) at which, and the date when, the fingerprints were taken, for submission to the State Division of Criminal Justice Services and the Federal Bureau of Investigation; (ii) if applicable, such processing fees as prescribed by the superintendent; and (iii) two portrait-style photographs of the individuals measuring not more than two inches by two inches;
  6. an organization chart of the applicant and its management structure;
  7. a current financial statement for the applicant and each principal officer, principal stockholder, and principal beneficiary of the applicant, as applicable, and a projected balance sheet and income statement for the following year of the applicant’s operation;
  8. a description of the proposed, current, and historical business of the applicant;
  9. details of all banking arrangements;
  10. all written policies and procedures required by, or related to, the requirements of this part;
  11. an affidavit describing any pending or threatened administrative, civil, or criminal action, litigation, or proceeding before any governmental agency, court, or arbitration tribunal against the applicant or any of its directors, principal officers, principal stockholders, and principal beneficiaries, as applicable;
  12. verification from the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance that the applicant is compliant with all New York State tax obligations in a form acceptable to the superintendent;
  13. if applicable, a copy of any insurance policies maintained for the benefit of the applicant, its directors or officers, or its customers; and
  14. an explanation of the methodology used to calculate the value of virtual currency in fiat currency; and

Businesses operating in the virtual currency space, that are not exempt from these new regulations, must ensure that they comply with these new licensing requirements. Businesses interested in pursuing a New York virtual currency license should consult with legal counsel.

 

A recent decision of the Delaware Court of Chancery (the “Court”) places certain fiduciary constraints on a company’s ability to satisfy its obligations to its preferred equity holders. While investors often seek to acquire preferred stock in return for their investments, the Court’s decision in The Frederick HSU Living Trust v. ODN Holding Corporation (“ODN”) et al., makes it clear that actions taken by a company in connection with the payment of such preference will be subject to the fiduciary duties that a company’s board owes to its holders of common stock.

Plaintiff, a founding stockholder of ODN Holding Corporation (the “Company”), brought an action against the Company’s board of directors (the “Board”) alleging, among other things, breach of fiduciary duty in connection with the redemption of preferred shares owned by the Company’s controlling stockholder, the venture capital firm Oak Hill Capital Partners (“Oak Hill”). As consideration for Oak Hills’s investment in the Company, Oak Hill received shares of preferred stock in the Company, carrying a mandatory redemption right exercisable by Oak Hill five (5) years after the investment (See id. at 6). In the event that the Company did not have sufficient funds to redeem the preferred stock at the time of exercise, the Company agreed to make redemption payments to Oak Hill as funds became available (See id. at 6-7). Plaintiff claimed that Oak Hill caused the Company to alter its business strategy prior to the time that the redemption right was able to be exercised, prioritizing the hoarding of cash to satisfy Oak Hill’s redemption demand rather than fostering the growth and development of the Company for the benefit of the common holders (See id. at 10-14). This included selling two (2) of the Company’s primary lines of business in an effort to raise capital to fund such redemption, and failing to use funds to pursue acquisitions, as was the Company’s prior practice (See id.). As a result of the foregoing, Plaintiff brought several claims against the Company, Oak Hill, and individual members of the Board, among which was a claim for contravention of the Board’s fiduciary duty of loyalty to the holders of the Company’s common stock (See id. at 21).

With respect to the fiduciary duty claim, the Court held in favor of Plaintiff, denying Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss. The Court’s rationale centered on the premise that a company’s board of directors has a fiduciary obligation to maximize the long-term value of the company for the benefit of holders of its “undifferentiated equity” (i.e. its common stock) (See id. at 36-37). The Court distinguished the rights of preferred holders as contractual in nature, entitling them to fiduciary duty protection only to the extent their interests align with the interests of the common holders (See id. at 41 and 44). While the Court readily acknowledged the contractual obligation to redeem the preferred shares held by Oak Hill, it emphasized that the Board took actions to satisfy the redemption obligation before there was any contractual obligation to redeem. In other words, the Board took actions to maximize the value of the redemption right rather than the value of the common stock, which the Court ultimately held to be a direct breach of the Board’s fiduciary duty of loyalty to the shareholders of the Company.

The Court’s holding in this case reminds investors that, at the end of the day, a board’s primary directive is to maximize the company’s value to its common stockholders, not its preferred holders. Because the rights of the preferred are contractually founded, they must ultimately be subject to the overall interests of the “undifferentiated equity” of a company. From an investor’s perspective, the Court’s decision will likely spur efforts to structure preferred equity obligations in a way that gives the preferred holders the ability to take direct action rather than going through the board, thereby making the fiduciary duty issue a moot point. This may be preferable from a company’s perspective as well, especially in the case of board members who are appointed by holders of preferred stock.

However, in structuring the rights of preferred holders, care should be taken to ensure that the protections do not inadvertently lead to other issues. For example, affording preferred stock too many protections could cause it to fall under the definition of “disqualified preferred stock,” or a similar term contained in a company’s senior credit agreement, if applicable, which could have adverse consequences on the company and all of its equity holders.

The full text of the case, The Frederick HSU Living Trust v. ODN Holding Corporation (“ODN”) et al., can be found here.

Delaware General Corporate Law § 226 (the “Custodian Statute”) bestows the Delaware Court of Chancery with the power to appoint a custodian for solvent companies and receivers for insolvent companies in certain circumstances. See 8 Del. C. § 226. Specifically, a custodian may be appointed where, inter alia, a company’s “stockholders are so divided that they have failed to elect successors to directors whose terms have expired”, and where the business is suffering or threatened with “irreparable injury because the directors are so divided respecting the management of affairs that the required vote for action by the board of directors cannot be obtained and the stockholders are unable to terminate this division.” 8 Del. C. § 226(a)(1), (2). Although a custodian appointed under § 226 shall “continue the business of the corporation and not . . . liquidate its affairs and distribute its assets,” the Chancery Court has wide discretion in how it addresses a deadlock, and may even authorize a custodian to sell a company. See id. The scope of the Chancery Court’s broad discretionary authority to address deadlocks under § 226 was addressed in a recent decision of the Delaware Supreme Court. See Shawe v. Elting, No. 423, 2016, 2017 WL 563963, at *1 (Del. Feb. 13, 2017). Some read that decision as expanding the power of the courts to order the sale of a solvent company’s stock over the objection of the company’s shareholders.

In response to the decision, legislation has been proposed that would restrict the Chancery Court’s ability to dissolve or sell a solvent company by requiring that “alternative remedies prove insufficient after three years”, or the “necessary parties stipulate to such a sale.” Proposed Delaware Senate Bill No. 53.  The purpose of the proposed legislation is to “ensure the continued fair and equitable treatment of corporations in Delaware” by addressing “deficien[cies] in providing fair and equitable remedies in specific regards to deadlock situations.”  Id.  The Delaware Corporate Law Section plans to oppose the bill. The full text of the case, Shawe v. Elting, can be accessed here.