The Hostile Poison Pill
51 Pages Posted: 1 Mar 2016 Last revised: 19 Apr 2016
Date Written: February 29, 2016
Whether one ascribes to the agency theory of shareholder primacy or the contractarian theory of director primacy, boards of directors have great discretion in determining whether, when, and how to sell the corporation. Defensive tactics, like poison pills, can be tools in wielding that discretion in the service of creating shareholder value. However, a poison pill either to oppress a minority shareholder, as in eBay v. Newmark, or to minimize the impact of activist shareholders, as in Versata Enterprises, Inc. v. Selectica, Inc., seems to exceed the “maximum dosage” of the pill. The NOL poison pill, while facially plausible as a tool to protect tax assets from impairment caused by a Section 382 “ownership change,” may be a stepping stone to a low-trigger anti-shareholder pill. Instead of warding off uninvited potential acquirers, the pill could ward off shareholder voice. Though the original poison pills were blessed by the Delaware courts to ward off hostile bidders, now boards can use a hostile poison pill to ward off noisy shareholders.
With the threat of the 1980s-era hostile bidder behind us, a new threat to board authority has emerged: the activist shareholder. These types of investors, often activist hedge funds, agitate not for control of a corporation, but for access to the board to argue for changes in strategy. Defensive tools used against hostile bidders at first seem inapplicable to these types of nuisances; staggered boards and poison pills with typical 15-20% triggers seem irrelevant. However, a pair of cases decided in Delaware may give managers an idea of how to cope with these aggressive blockholders. One case, Air Products and Chemicals, Inc. v. Airgas, Inc., allowed a company’s board to keep a poison pill in place for over a year even though the bidder did not seem to pose much of a cognizable threat to the corporation. By itself, Airgas does not seem to give much relief to a board dealing with a noisy 5% or 10% shareholder. However, the Delaware Supreme Court the year earlier had blessed a poison pill that would be triggered if a shareholder increased its ownership to 4.99% of the corporation, the lowest ownership threshold to be brought before the court. In Versata Enterprises, Inc. v. Selectica, Inc., the Delaware court upheld the poison pill even though the board did not focus its argument on the threat of a takeover. In this case, the “danger to corporate policy and effectiveness” existed because of the activist shareholder’s creeping purchases would constitute an “ownership change” under existing federal tax law and would lead to the loss of certain tax assets, net operating loss carryovers (NOLs). Because the NOLs were a very large, if unusable, asset to Selectica that would be severely limited under Section 382 of the Internal Revenue Code if the ownership change occurred, the court held that the low-trigger rights plan was reasonable and proportionate against a legitimate threat. Together, these cases seem to suggest a new weapon to be used against activist shareholders: a poison pill with a very low trigger.
Unfortunately, the Delaware courts took at face value Selectica’s argument that the creeping acquisition could involuntarily cause the target company to lose a large tax asset. The Unocal test is supposed to require the board to articulate its rationale for implementing a defensive tactic, foreclosing the opportunity for pretextual arguments. However, this analytical technique may not work in the NOL context where the presence of NOLs may give a board of directors cover for keeping blockholders away. This Article attempts to shed some light on the operation of Section 382 to disclose some of the faulty assumptions surrounding both the necessity and efficacy of the NOL poison pill. In addition, this Article uses a dataset of 155 companies that adopted NOL poison pills between 1998 and 2014 to examine what types of firms are using this defensive tactic. A board might argue in good faith or not that an NOL poison pill is necessary to defend itself against a strange and diverse cast of characters: the Hostile Acquirer, the Accidental Bungler and the Bad Faith Saboteur. However, an NOL poison pill necessarily has little or no deterrent effect and no physical effect against any of these actors. In fact, the only shareholder that the NOL poison pill effectively deters is the activist shareholder, suggesting that the use of the poison pill in these cases may be “hostile.”
Keywords: poison pill, net operating losses, corporate tax, tax, fiduciary duties, corporations, mergers & acquisitions, board of directors, corporate governance, tax benefit preservation plans
JEL Classification: G34
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation