Italy – How Covid19 impacts on Private Equity and Venture Capital transactions

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In 2019 the Private Equity and Venture Capital players have invested Euro 7,223 million in 370 transactions in the Italian Market, 26% less than 2018; these are the outcomes released on March 24th by AIFI (Italian Association of Private Equity, Venture Capital e Private Debt).

In this slowing down scenario the spreading of Covid-19 is impacting Private Equity and Venture Capital transactions currently in progress, thus raising implications and alerts that will considerably affect both further capital investments and the legal approach to investments themselves.

Companies spanning a wide range of industries are concerned by Covid-19 health emergency, with diverse impacts on businesses depending on the industry. In this scenario, product companies, direct-to-consumer companies, and retail-oriented businesses appear to be more affected than service, digital, and hi-tech companies. Firms and investors will both need to batten down the hatches, as to minimize the effects of the economic contraction on the on-going investment transactions. In this scenario, investors hypothetically backing off from funding processes represent an issue of paramount concern for start-ups, as these companies are targeted by for VC and PE investments. In that event, the extent of the risk would be dependent upon the investment agreements and share purchase agreements (SPAs) entered into and the term sheets approved by the parties.

MAC/MAE clauses

The right of investors to withdrawal (way out) from a transaction is generally secured by the so-called MAC or MAE clauses – respectively, material adverse change clause or material adverse effect. These clauses, as the case may be and in the event of unforeseeable circumstances, upon the subscription of the agreements, which significantly impact the business or particular variables of the investment, allow investors to decide not to proceed to closing, not to proceed to the subscription and the payment of the share capital increase, when previously resolved, to modify/renegotiate the enterprise value, or to split the proposed investment/acquisition into multiple tranches.

These estimates, in terms of type and potential methods of application of the clauses, usually depend on a number of factors, including the governing law for the agreements – if other than Italian – with this circumstance possibly applying in the case of foreign investors imposing the existing law in their jurisdiction, as the result of their position in the negotiation.

When the enforcement of MAC/MAE clauses leads to the modification/renegotiation of the enterprise value – that is to be lowered – it is advisable to provide for specific contract terms covering calculating mechanisms allowing for smoothly redefining the start-up valuation in the venture capital deals, with the purpose of avoiding any gridlocks that would require further involvement of experts or arbitrators.

In the absence of MAC/MAE clauses and in the case of agreements governed by the Italian law, the Civil Code provides for a contractual clause called ‘supervenient burdensomeness’ (eccessiva onerosità sopravvenuta) of a specific performance (i.e. the investment), with the consequent right for the party whose performance has become excessively burdensome to terminate the contract or to make changes to the contract, with a view to fair and balanced conditions – this solution however implies an inherent degree of complexity and cannot be instantly implemented. In case of agreements governed by foreign laws, it shall be checked whether or not the applicable provisions allow the investor to exit the transaction.

Interim Period clauses

MAC/MAE are generally negotiated when the time expected to closing is medium or long. Similarly, time factors underpin the concept of the Interim Period clauses regulating the business operation in the period between signing and closing, by re-shaping the company’s ordinary scope of business, i.e. introducing maximum expenditure thresholds and providing for the prohibition to execute a variety of transactions, such as capital-related transactions, except when the investors, which shall be entitled to remove these restrictions from time to time, agree otherwise.

It is recommended to ascertain that the Interim Period clauses provide for a possibility to derogate from these restrictions, following prior authorization from the investors, and that said clauses do not require, where this possibility is lacking, for an explicit modification to the provision because of the occurrence of any operational need due to the Covid-19 emergency.

Conditions for closing

The Government actions providing for measures to contain coronavirus have caused several slowdowns that may impact on the facts or events that are considered as preliminary conditions which, when occurring, allow to proceed to closing. Types of such conditions range from authorisations to public entities (i.e. IPs jointly owned with a university), to the achievement of turnover objectives or the completion of precise milestones, that may be negatively affected by the present standstill of companies and bodies. Where these conditions were in fact jeopardised by the events triggered by the Covid-19 outbreak, this would pose important challenges to closing, except where expressly provided that the investor can renounce, with consent to proceed to the investment in all cases. This is without prejudice to the possibility of renegotiating the conditions, in agreement with all the parties.

Future investments: best practice

Covid-19 virus related emergency calls for a change in the best practice of Private Equity and Venture Capital transactions: these should carry out detailed Due diligences on aspects which so far have been under-examined.

This is particularly true for insurance policies covering cases of business interruption resulting from extraordinary and unpredictable events; health insurance plans for employees; risk management procedures in supply chain contracts, especially with foreign counterparts; procedures for smart working and relevant GDPR compliance issues in case of targeted companies based in EU and UK; contingency plans, workplace safety, also in connection with the protocols that ensure ad-hoc policies for in-house work.

Investment protection should therefore also involve MAC/MAE clauses and relevant price adjustment mechanisms, including for the negotiation of contract-related warranties (representation & warranties). A special focus shall be given now, with a different approach, to the companies’ ability to tackle and minimize the risks that may arise from unpredictable events of the same scope as Covid-19, which is now affecting privacy systems, the workforce, the management of supply chain contracts, and the creditworthiness of financing agreements.

This emergency will lead investors to value the investments with even greater attention to information, other than financial ones, about targeted companies.

Indeed, it is mandatory today to gain overview on the resilience of businesses, in terms of structure and capability, when these are challenged by the exogenous variables of the market on the one side, and by the endogenous variables on the other side – to be now understood as part of the global economy.

There is however good news: Venture Capital and Private Equity, like any other ecosystem, will have its own response capacity and manage to gain momentum, as it happened in 2019 when Italy witnessed an unprecedented increase in investments. The relevant stakeholders are already developing coping strategies. Transactions currently in progress are not halted – though slowed down. Indeed, the quarantine does not preclude negotiations or shareholders’ meetings, which are held remotely or by videoconference. This also helps dispel the notion that meetings can only be conducted by getting the parties concerned round the same table.

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Milena Prisco
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