Understanding a Tender Offer's Effect on Investors

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One of the things you're going to encounter many times in your life as an investor in common stock is an event called a tender offer. This is an overview of how they work and why they matter so you can feel more comfortable if you log in to your brokerage account and see an announcement telling you that one of your positions is subject to a tender offer and that you must make a choice before a certain deadline.

The Definition of a Tender Offer

A tender offer is a public offer, made by a person, business, or group, who wants to acquire a given amount of a particular security. The term comes from the fact they are inviting the existing stockholders to "tender," or sell, their shares to them. In effect, a tender offer is a conditional offer to buy.

The individual or entity making the offer says, "I am willing to buy your stock at $[x] if you tender (sell) it to me, but only if a total of [y] shares are tendered to me by all stockholders. Otherwise, the deal is off and we pretend like it didn't happen." Of course, this is simplifying it, but that's the crux of the matter.

The Purpose of a Tender Offer

Usually, tender offers are proposed in the hopes a would-be acquirer can accumulate enough common stock to either get a major presence on or completely take over the board of directors.

One benefit of a tender offer from the perspective of the acquirer is that, if the acquirer comes to own a large enough percentage of the outstanding stock, they can force all remaining stockholders to sell out and take the company private. Or, they can merge it into an existing publicly traded business even if they didn't accept the original tender offer. In other words, it could cause it to become a subsidiary of a holding company, and only the holding company has any stock in the newly-purchased operation.

Often, a tender offer is used in cases where the management and board of directors do not believe the takeover would be in the best interest of the shareholder, and they, therefore, oppose it. Accordingly, it is the means by which a hostile takeover can be accomplished by acquirers/investors who want to take control despite the objection of incumbent directors and executives.

How Tender Offers Work for Investors

Imagine you own 1,000 shares of Company ABC at $50 per share for a market valuation of $50,000. One day, you wake up and log in to your brokerage account. You are notified that Firm XYZ has made a formal tender offer to buy your shares at $65 per share but that the deal will only close if 80 percent of the outstanding stock is tendered to the acquirer by stockholders as part of the transaction. You have a couple of weeks to decide whether or not you will tender your shares.

If you decide to accept your tender offer, you must submit your instructions prior to the deadline or else you will not be eligible to participate. It's usually as simple as telling your broker, either on the phone, in person, or through the brokerage website, "Sure, I'll sell out at $65 per share," and waiting to see what happens. (Of course, if you have physical stock certificates, it's an entirely different procedure, but those are fairly rare these days.) 

If the tender offer is successful and enough shares are tendered, the transaction is completed, and you'll see the 1,000 shares of Company ABC taken out of your account and a deposit of $65,000 cash put into it. If the tender offer fails because fewer than 80 percent of the shares were tendered to the would-be acquirer, the offer disappears, and you don't sell your stock. You're left with your original 1,000 shares of Company ABC in your brokerage account.

Keep in mind that once you accept a tender offer, you are selling your stock. This means you may owe capital gains taxes on any increase in the value of the shares you enjoyed over the period during which you held your ownership unless you happen to hold the shares in tax-deferred or tax-free accounts such as a Traditional IRA or Roth IRA

If you reject the tender offer or miss the deadline, you get nothing. You still have your 1,000 shares of Company ABC and can sell them to other investors in the broader stock market at whatever price happens to be available. In some cases, the people behind the initial tender offer will come back and make a secondary tender offer if they did not receive enough shares or want to acquire additional ownership in which case you might have another bite at the apple. However, as mentioned earlier, if you don't tender but enough people do, you're probably going to be forced out of your ownership, anyway, as the enterprise is taken private down the road.

Regulations of Tender Offers in the United States

Tender offers are subject to extensive regulation in the United States. These regulations are meant to protect investors, keep capital markets efficient, and offer a set of ground rules that can give stability to the business potentially being acquired so it can react. Specifically, tender offers mainly fall under the purview of two regulations, The Williams Act and SEC Regulation 14E. Let's look at each individually.

The Williams Act—Part of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934—requires that an individual, company, or other group of people seeking to acquire control of a business follow a set of guidelines meant to increase fairness to capital market participants and to allow interested parties, including a company's board of directors and management, to have the time necessary to form and present their case for supporting or rejecting the tender offer to the stockholders.

For example, the Williams Act states that a tender offer must be:

  1. Registered under federal law
  2. Disclosed in writing to the Securities and Exchange Commission, including an explanation of the source of funds used in the offer
  3. Give a reason the tender offer is being made
  4. Announce any intended plans the individual, business, or group extending the tender offer has for the acquired company, if the tender offer is successful
  5. Disclose the existence of any understandings, contracts, or other agreements concerning the subject of the tender offer

The law also states that tender offers must not be misleading or contain false or incomplete statements meant to trick someone into voting a certain way.

One of the most well-known rules arising out of the Williams Act is the requirement for anyone who buys or somehow comes to control more than 5% of a company's outstanding stock to immediately disclose this fact to the regulators and the public. These rules usually apply to mutual fund managers, hedge fund managers, asset management companies, registered investment advisors, and similar individuals who control or manage investments for other people, as well. 

Regulation 14E (Rules 14e-1 to 14f-1) cover a slew of tender offer rules, each detailed and specific. For example, it is against the law for a person to announce a tender offer if he or she doesn't reasonably have a belief that they will have the funds available to them to consummate the deal, if accepted, because this would result in wild fluctuations of the stock price, making market manipulation easier.

Furthermore, it would reduce faith investors and business managers had in the capital markets because people would have to wonder if a tender offer was legitimate or not every time they received word their company had been subject to one, distracting everyone involved.