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Mergers and Acquisitions Guide (M&A)

Step-by-Step Guide to Understanding Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A)

Last Updated December 6, 2023

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Mergers and Acquisitions Guide (M&A)

What are Mergers and Acquisitions?

The goal of our M&A guide is to take a step back from complicated number crunching and shed light on how deals are negotiated, structured and consummated in the real world.

Using Microsoft’s acquisition of LinkedIn as our primary case study (and a few others along the way), we will break down the various parts of an M&A deal.

Along the way, look for “Deep Dive” links that point to more specific details of the M&A process.

We hope this proves to be a valuable resource that quickly gives you a real-world understanding of mergers and acquisitions, without the need to comb through voluminous textbooks.

Why Participate in M&A? (Reward vs. Risk)

When M&A is successful, it promises enhanced value to both the buyer and seller. For the buyer, M&A offers the following benefits.

  1. Accelerate time to market with new products and channels
  2. Remove competition (buying a competitor is called horizontal integration)
  3. Achieve supply chain efficiencies (buying a supplier or customer is called vertical integration)

Meanwhile, the cost savings that could be achieved by the reduction of redundant jobs and infrastructure (called synergies) can be shared by both the buyer and seller: The anticipation of lower costs will allow the buyer to afford a higher purchase price.

When M&A is unsuccessful, it can destroy value and especially hurt the buyer (since the seller is already cashed out). Poor due diligence, mismanaged integration, and overestimation of potential cost savings are common reasons why mergers and acquisitions can fail.

Learn More → Investment Banking Primer

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What is an Example of M&A? – Microsoft Acquires LinkedIn

Barring leaks to the media, the first time the world hears about a merger is usually through a merger announcement press release issued jointly by both companies. This is how we learned of the LinkedIn acquisition on June 13, 2016

Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) and LinkedIn Corporation (NYSE: LNKD) on Monday announced they have entered into a definitive agreement under which Microsoft will acquire LinkedIn for $196 per share in an all-cash transaction valued at $26.2 billion, inclusive of LinkedIn’s net cash. 

Full Press Release

M&A Form of Consideration (Cash vs Stock)

So LinkedIn shareholders will cash out. In this deal, each shareholder gets $196 in cold hard cash. However, buyers can also pay with their own stock, cash, or a mixture.

Calculating the Purchase Premium in M&A

To see the percent control premium the $196 offer price per share represents, we need to look at LinkedIn’s share price prior to the announcement. Below, we can see how LNKD shares traded in the days leading up to the sale, as well as the huge spike in volume and share price on the announcement date:

Source: (On the job, you’d use a fee-based financial data service for historical prices).

The premium was 49.5%: Shares closed at $131.08 per share the Friday before the Monday announcement. The $196 represents a 49.5% purchase premium. Acquirers always have to pay more than the seller’s trading price. Otherwise, why would the seller agree?

How did this purchase premium compare to other deals? According to Bloomberg, most (83%) of global M&A deals in 2016 had premiums between 10-50%, putting LinkedIn in the high end. As we’ll see, a bidding war benefited the lucky shareholders at LinkedIn (and Microsoft’s $196 price wasn’t even the highest offer!).

M&A Deal Structure

Returning back to the press release:

LinkedIn will retain its distinct brand, culture and independence. Jeff Weiner will remain CEO of LinkedIn, reporting to Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft. Reid Hoffman, chairman of the board, co-founder and controlling shareholder of LinkedIn, and Weiner both fully support this transaction. The transaction is expected to close this calendar year.

It looks like LinkedIn’s CEO Jeff Weiner will stay on. Here are the two CEOs talking about the strategic rationale:

As is usually the case in a friendly deal (a deal in which the buyer and seller management teams jointly announce the deal, as opposed to a hostile takeover in which the buyer doesn’t have the support of seller management), you’ll get some language in the announcement like this:

The Board of Directors of the Company (LinkedIn) unanimously determined that the transactions contemplated by the Merger Agreement, including the Merger, are in the best interests of the Company and its stockholders, and approved the Merger Agreement and the transactions contemplated thereby, and unanimously resolved to recommend that the Company’s stockholders vote in favor of adoption of the Merger Agreement.

Interpretation: LinkedIn’s board of directors approved the deal and recommended that all the shareholders vote in favor of it.

How Does the Shareholder Approval Process Work?

Target Shareholder Approval is Required

For a decision as significant as a sale of an entire company, it isn’t enough for management and board to simply approve the deal.

The proposed transaction can only go through if more than 50% of a company’s shareholders vote to approve it. Or, in some rare cases, a supermajority is required.

In LinkedIn’s case, co-founder and chairman Reid Hoffman owned more than 50% of the shares. As we will see shortly, he committed to voting for the deal ahead of the announcement, so the vote was a foregone conclusion. That’s not always the case. In hostile takeovers or proxy fights, there’s risk that shareholders will not vote to support a transaction.

Is Buyer Shareholder Approval Required?

For transactions in which the acquirer issues more than 20% of its own stock, acquirer shareholders may also be required to approve the acquisition. This is the case in the CVS/AETNA deal. Per CVS’ announcement press release:

The transaction is expected to close in the second half of 2018. It is subject to approval by CVS Health and Aetna shareholders, regulatory approvals and other customary closing conditions.

Merger vs. Tender Offer

The type of deal described in the Microsoft-LinkedIn press release is a traditional merger and represents the most common deal structure: The target’s management negotiates with the buyer’s management and board. They agree to terms, a merger agreement is signed and the deal is announced.

A less common way to structure a deal is via a tender offer. Tender offers are most common in hostile transactions and involve a buyer bypassing target’s management and board and going directly to the target’s shareholders with an offer.

Asset Sale vs. Stock Sale

In the Microsoft-LinkedIn deal, Microsoft used its cash to acquire LinkedIn stock. We know this because the press release, merger agreement and proxy all describe how Microsoft is buying LinkedIn shares. The proxy lays out clearly that at closing, LinkedIn shareholders will receive $196 for each of their shares, which will then be cancelled:

At the effective time of the merger, each outstanding share of Class A and Class B common stock (collectively referred to as “common stock”) (other than shares held by (1) LinkedIn as treasury stock; (2) Microsoft, Merger Sub or their respective subsidiaries; and (3) LinkedIn stockholders who have properly and validly exercised and perfected their appraisal rights under Delaware law with respect to such shares) will be cancelled and automatically converted into the right to receive the per share merger consideration (which is $196.00 per share, without interest thereon and subject to applicable withholding taxes).

However, there is another way Microsoft could have acquired LinkedIn: It could have acquired all LinkedIn’s assets and assumed all liabilities. The decision to structure a deal as an acquisition of the target’s assets vs an acquisition of target stock carries significant accounting, legal and tax issues. To learn more about the differences between these approaches, click on the “deep dive” link below.

What are the Key M&A Documents and Filings?

Up to now, we’ve been learning about the Microsoft LinkedIn deal solely from the detail provided in the announcement day press release. To understand a transaction beyond the headlines, we’ll need to locate additional deal documents that the companies have provided.

We’ve included a guide about the contents of key M&A documents here, but let’s summarize the key points below.

In a traditional merger where the target is public (which is the case here), we rely on two documents:

  1. The definitive agreement (merger agreement)
  2. The merger proxy

Definitive Agreement (Merger Agreement)

The press release announcing the deal is usually distributed to media outlets and is on both companies’ websites. When a public company is acquired, it will immediately file to the SEC an 8-K that contains the press release. In addition, it will typically file the full merger agreement (usually found as an exhibit in the same 8-K that contained the announcement press release).

In practice

The merger agreement is usually filed as an exhibit to the announcement press release 8-K or sometimes as a separate 8-K. Just search EDGAR for filings made on or around the announcement date.

Merger Proxy

Because LinkedIn must get shareholder approval for this transaction, it must file a proxy statement with the SEC. When the vote concerns a merger, the proxy is called a merger proxy and is filed as a DEFM14A. If the proceeds include stock, the proxy is called a merger prospectus.

Both the merger agreement and proxy lay out in more detail the terms described in the press release. Specifically, the Microsoft-LinkedIn merger agreement details:

  1. What conditions trigger the break-up fee?
  2. Can the seller solicit other bids (go-shop” or no-shop)?
  3. What conditions allow the buyer to walk away (material adverse effects)?
  4. How many shares will be converted to acquirer shares (when buyers pay with stock)?
  5. What happens to the options and restricted stock holders of LinkedIn?

In addition, the proxy will disclose many details around deal negotiations, company projections, treatment of dilutive securities, and other details that are more thorough and clearly laid out than those in the legal jargon-heavy merger agreement.

In Practice: Merger Proxy vs. Merger Agreement

The merger proxy (or merger prospectus) is much easier to navigate than the merger agreement, and is the primary data source used to understand key terms in the transactions.

Gap Period Between Announcement Date and Close

The period between deal announcement (i.e. when the merger agreement is signed) and deal completion (i.e. when the two companies legally merge) can last anywhere from a few weeks to several months. There are several common deal terms negotiated between buyer and seller that specifically address what should happen in case of unforeseen circumstances during this period.

Perhaps the most well-known deal term that addresses risk during this “gap period” is the breakup fee the buyer will get if the seller backs out of the deal. In addition to the breakup fee there are several, often highly negotiated deal terms that M&A professionals can utilize in the deal process.

Breakup Fee

The Microsoft-LinkedIn press release outlines a $725 million breakup fee should LinkedIn back out of the deal for the following reasons:

Upon termination of the Merger Agreement under specified circumstances, the Company will be required to pay Parent a termination fee of $725 million. Specifically, if the Merger Agreement is terminated by (1) Parent if the Company’s Board of Directors withdraws its recommendation of the Merger; (2) Parent or the Company in connection with the Company accepting a superior proposal; or (3) Parent or the Company if the Company fails to obtain the necessary approval from the Company’s stockholders, then the termination fee will be payable by the Company to Parent upon termination. The termination fee will also be payable in certain circumstances if the Merger Agreement is terminated and prior to such termination (but after the date of the Merger Agreement) an acquisition proposal is publicly announced or otherwise received by the Company and the Company consummates, or enters into a definitive agreement providing for, an acquisition transaction within one year of the termination.

In plain English, LinkedIn will pay Microsoft $725 million if:

  1. LinkedIn’s board of directors change their minds
  2. More than 50% of LinkedIn’s shareholders don’t approve the deal
  3. LinkedIn chooses a competing bidder (called an “interloper”)

There’s good reason for buyers to insist on a breakup fee: The target board is legally obligated to maximize value for their shareholders. That’s part of their fiduciary obligation. That means if a better offer comes along (after a deal is announced but before it’s completed), the board may be inclined to reverse its recommendation and support the new higher bid.

The breakup fee seeks to neutralize this and protect the buyer for the time, resources and cost already poured into the process.

Notice that buyer protection via a breakup fee is one-directional: No breakup fee was owed to LinkedIn should Microsoft walk away.

However, that doesn’t mean Microsoft can just walk away unscathed. At deal announcement, the buyer and seller have both signed the merger agreement — a binding contract for the buyer. If the buyer walks away, the seller will sue.

Reverse Termination Fee

A seller also faces the risk of being left at the altar by the buyer, most notably the risk that the buyer will not secure the financing required to get the deal done. As the name suggests, a reverse termination fee allows the seller to collect a fee should the buyer walk away from a deal.

To address this, the merger agreement (which we’ll review shortly) might identify conditions that would lead to the seller collecting a reverse termination fee. There was no reverse termination fee in the Microsoft-LinkedIn deal. (This is more of an issue when the buyer is a private equity investor.)

No-Shop Provisions

Recall how the press release disclosed that a breakup fee would take effect if LinkedIn ultimately consummates a deal with another buyer. The merger agreement has a section called “No Solicitation,” commonly known as a no-shop, that prohibits LinkedIn from seeking other bids. Microsoft, like most acquirers, was weary of other suitors (particularly of Salesforce) and sought to protect itself. Ultimately the no-shop held, but as we shall see later, it did not prevent Salesforce from entering a higher unsolicited proposal bid for LinkedIn after the deal, which forced Microsoft to up the ante.

While most deals contain a no-shop, a small-but-growing number of deals contain a go-shop. The go-shop explicitly allows the seller to explore competing bids after the merger agreement. This is most common in go-private transactions, in which the seller is a public company and the buyer is a private equity firm (as is the case in a traditional LBO).

Material Adverse Change (MAC)

Another protection for the buyer is material adverse change (MAC)which gives the buyer recourse should the seller’s business go completely off the rails prior to the deal closing. Microsoft included a MAC (as do virtually all buyers) in the merger agreement. The MAC gives the buyer the right to terminate the agreement if the target experiences a material adverse change to the business.

Exchange Ratios: Fixed vs. Floating Exchange Ratio

While Microsoft paid for LinkedIn in cash, remember that sometimes companies will use their own stock as currency. When a buyer pays for a target with its own stock, there’s another consideration: What if the acquirer’s share price drops between the announcement and closing date?

To address this, deals are usually structured with a fixed exchange ratio, with the ratio fixed until the closing date. Alternatively, deals can be structured with a floating exchange ratio. Here, the ratio floats so that the target receives a fixed value no matter what happens to either acquirer or target shares.

Purchase Price Working Capital Adjustments

The amount of working capital that a seller has on the balance sheet at the announcement date may be materially different from the amount it has at closing. To protect itself from deterioration of the company’s working capital position, buyers may structure an adjustment for working capital into the transaction that reflects changes between announcement and closing. For example, if at announcement a seller had net working capital of $5 million but only $4 million at closing, the purchase price would be adjusted down by $1 million. (There was no working capital purchase price adjustment in the Linkedin Microsoft deal.)

In practice

Working capital price adjustments are exceedingly rare in public deals. However, they are a common feature in private transactions.

A real life example

When Lifecare Hospitals acquired several of Healthsouth’s hospitals (read more here), it included a working capital purchase price adjustment. Per their merger agreement:

The purchase price to be paid by Buyers … for the sale and purchase of the Purchased Assets as herein contemplated (the “Purchase Price”) shall be an amount equal to (i) $108,974,481, plus (or minus), (ii) an amount equal to the difference between the Final Net Working Capital and a deficit of $954,698.71, minus (iii) the Indebtedness Adjustment Amount. The adjustments described in clauses (ii) and (iii) above collectively are referred to as the “Purchase Price Adjustments.”

Contingent Consideration and Earn-Outs in M&A

As you might guess, the most significant hurdle in M&A negotiation is an agreement on price. One way to bridge the valuation gap between what a target thinks it’s worth and what a buyer is willing to pay is to structure contingent consideration (called an “earn-out”).

When an earn-out is negotiated, the buyer explicitly spells out milestones that would trigger additional consideration. Commonly, an earn-out payment will be contingent upon the target hitting EBITDA and revenue goals, or specific milestones, such as a pharma target securing FDA approval of a drug.

How to Treat Dilutive Securities in M&A?

In a transaction, several things can happen to stock options and restricted stock. The merger proxy clearly lays out how options and restricted stock holders will be affected.

Treatment of Unvested Options and Stock Based Awards

The LinkedIn merger proxy lays out what happens to these securities — namely, unvested LinkedIn securities will convert to unvested Microsoft securities with the same terms:

… At the effective time of the merger, each company option and company stock-based award that is outstanding immediately prior to the effective time of the merger that is unvested will be assumed or substituted for by Microsoft and automatically converted into a corresponding equity award representing the right to acquire, on the same material terms and conditions, an adjusted number of shares of Microsoft common stock, subject to certain exceptions.

The merger agreement also specifies the conversion mechanism. Because Microsoft traded at around $60 per share and LinkedIn shares were worth $196 around the time of the acquisition, an unvested LinkedIn option would convert to ~3.3x MSFT options ($196/$60). (The $60 is an approximation. As the merger proxy explains, the exact denominator will be determined as the volume weight 5-day average of MSFT stock prior to closing.) Converted options will also get a new exercise price – namely 3.3x the LNKD option exercise price:

The number of shares of Microsoft common stock subject to the new equity awards will be determined by a stock award exchange ratio based on the relative value of the per share merger consideration ($196.00) and the volume weighted average price per share of Microsoft common stock for the five consecutive trading days ending with the complete trading day ending immediately prior to the closing date of the merger, with a corresponding adjustment to be made to the exercise prices of company options.

Treatment of Vested Options and Stock Based Awards

In this deal, all vested in-the-money options and all restricted stock is cashed out:

Any outstanding company options or company stock-based awards that are vested, will become vested in connection with the merger, or that are designated by Microsoft as cancelled awards instead will be cancelled and converted into the right to receive an amount in cash (less any amounts required to be deducted or withheld by law) determined by multiplying $196.00 by the number of outstanding shares of LinkedIn common stock subject to the award (and in the case of company options, less applicable exercise prices).

In the case of vested options that are out of the money, the option holder gets nothing at all:

If the per share exercise price of any surrendered company option is equal to or greater than $196.00, such surrendered company option will be cancelled as of the effective time of the merger for no payment and will have no further effect.

Accelerated Vesting for Executives

Unlike other LinkedIn employees who hold unvested options and restricted stock (their unvested securities will simply convert to unvested MSFT securities as detailed above), LNKD executives benefit from accelerated vesting. Specifically, executives will get accelerated vesting (50% or 100% based on their agreements) should they be terminated.

Also, each executive officer is eligible to receive immediate vesting of 100% or 50%, as applicable, of his or her outstanding company options or company stock-based awards under his or her offer letter (or change of control agreement) if, within 12 months following the merger, there is an involuntary termination of employment without cause, or a constructive termination as defined in the applicable offer letter (or change of control agreement). This is covered more fully below.

Key Target Shareholders

The merger proxy includes a list of all the entities and individuals that hold significant amounts of target shares.

Source: LinkedIn Merger Proxy

Notice that LinkedIn has dual class shares (Class A and B) — a feature you’ll see when insiders want to raise capital in an IPO while retaining voting control (for moments like this). This enabled LinkedIn co-founder and chairman Reid Hoffman (and other insiders) to retain voting control post-LinkedIn IPO. Google, Facebook, Groupon and Zynga are other companies with this type of arrangement.

Compensation for LinkedIn Management (“Golden Parachute”)

As the press release suggested, LinkedIn CEO Jeffrey Weiner will stay on. While no other executives had made a formal arrangement at the proxy date, most stayed on and negotiated contracts after the proxy. Page 68 of the proxy outlines Weiner’s compensation for staying on. Page 71 also outlines which payments pertain to key executives that leave (though as of December 2017, they’re all still at LinkedIn):

Background of the Merger

As we’ve seen, M&A transactions can be complex, with many legal, tax and accounting issues to sort out. But the decision to consummate a deal remains a very human negotiation process. While there have been great books written on the behind-the-scenes drama of major deals, information on how things played out for public deals is readily available in the surprisingly engaging “Background of the Merger” section of the merger proxy.

It’s there that we learned the form of consideration (cash vs. stock) Reid Hoffman favored, the number of bidders involved, details on LinkedIn’s management of it’s sell-side process. The merger proxy even tells us how, after the deal with Microsoft was signed, one bidder came back in and offered significantly more!

What is the Role of a Fairness Opinion in M&A?

As the “background of the merger” section of the proxy chronicles, on June 11, 2016, after management, Reid Hoffman, and the board-appointed Transaction Committee recommended the approval of the merger, Qatalyst Partners submitted its fairness opinion to LinkdIn’s board:

The representatives of Qatalyst Partners then rendered Qatalyst Partners’ oral opinion to the LinkedIn Board, subsequently confirmed by delivery of a written opinion dated June 11, 2016, that, as of June 11, 2016, and based upon and subject to the various assumptions, considerations, limitations and other matters set forth therein, the per share merger consideration to be received … was fair from a financial point of view

The fairness opinion is included in Linkedin’s merger proxy. Simply put, it says Qatalyst believes the deal is fair.

The merger proxy not only includes the fairness opinion letter, but a summary of backup assumptions, inputs and specific valuation conclusions: Qatalyst’s DCF and trading/transaction comps analyses yielded values for LinkedIn ranging from $110.46 on the low end to $257.96 on the high end. (Recall that the actual purchase price was $196.00.)  The fairness opinion is a controversial document since the financial advisor (in this case Qatalyst) is highly incentivized to align its opinion with management’s.

What are Synergies in M&A? (Accretion/Dilution Analysis)

When LinkedIn sought a higher offer from Microsoft in the later stages of negotiation, Microsoft performed a synergy analysis to ensure that the deal would not be dilutive. This was not a major hurdle for the Microsoft-LinkedIn deal, but for many strategic acquisitions, it is.

In fact, it is so important that the acquirer often identify synergies and quantify the accretion/dilution in EPS in the headline of the deal announcement press release, as we see in this deal announcement:

What is M&A in Investment Banking?

M&A investment bankingWe’ve seen the role played by Qatalyst Partners in the Microsoft-LinkedIn deal. Broadly, investment banks play a key role in the facilitation of transactions.

Thus, investment banking is probably the most direct career path for those focused on M&A.

While the Microsoft-LinkedIn deal was a strategic deal, many deals are done where the acquirer is a private equity company (financial deal). Private equity professionals are usually former investment banking analysts who analyze transactions on behalf of their PE firm. Their skill set overlaps with that of the investment banking M&A professional but has a higher emphasis on due diligence (since the private equity firm puts up its own money).

Lastly, some companies employ internal teams that analyze transactions and M&A opportunities. These teams are called “corporate development” or “corporate strategy.”

Depending on the company, these teams will fall directly under the CEO or CFO. Often, the entry-level professional is hired from the investment banking industry (which develops the requisite modeling and deal skills) or directly from business school.

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O. Pope Friedman
May 29, 2019 9:14 pm


Roos Koedijk
July 1, 2021 5:19 am

Who wrote this guide? I want to cite your excellent work.

Jeff Schmidt
July 1, 2021 7:32 am
Reply to  Roos Koedijk


Matan Feldman, Published on: Feb 15, 2018.


July 19, 2023 11:22 am

Wow , this is a good refresher and joining-the-pieces kind of article. I had gone through all the M&A related content on this website and this is a good summary.

Last edited 10 months ago by Samiksha
Nico Wright
December 26, 2022 5:38 pm


Brad Barlow
December 27, 2022 8:34 pm
Reply to  Nico Wright

Thank you, Nico!

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