The Impact of COVID-19 on Business Acquisitions

Saad Benryane

The COVID-19 pandemic has exerted an unparalleled disruptive influence on both personal lives and the global business environment. Companies worldwide have faced a litany of challenges including safeguarding the health and well-being of employees, ensuring operational continuity, maintaining liquidity, and balancing the diverse interests of various stakeholders. The ramifications have extended deeply into the domains of mergers and acquisitions (M&A), financing, securities markets, and contractual agreements.

In this context, businesses have encountered significant obstacles in executing and closing M&A transactions. The pandemic has not only forced companies to reassess the financial stability and valuation of potential acquisition targets but also to rethink their strategic goals and risk management frameworks. This article aims to dissect the major impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on M&A activities, with a focus on how companies are navigating this new terrain, renegotiating deals, and adjusting their approaches to due diligence and risk assessment.

The subsequent sections will explore how specific aspects of M&A transactions have been influenced by the pandemic, including contract renegotiations, the application of Material Adverse Effect (MAE) clauses, and the overall strategy shifts that companies are making to adapt to an ever-evolving economic landscape. The goal is to provide a comprehensive overview that aids businesses and advisors in making informed decisions during these uncertain times.

The Changing Landscape of M&A Transactions

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly reshaped the landscape of mergers and acquisitions (M&A), affecting the strategic, financial, and legal facets of corporate transactions. Businesses are now navigating a drastically altered environment where traditional M&A strategies are being reevaluated to adapt to the new normal. This section delves into the primary changes and challenges encountered in the M&A domain during the pandemic.

Impact on M&A Deal Flow and Strategy: The onset of the pandemic brought about a temporary slowdown in M&A activity as companies grappled with immediate operational and financial challenges. However, as markets began to stabilize, there was a resurgence in deal-making, spurred by the need to consolidate positions in various sectors and by the availability of distressed assets at reduced valuations. Companies are increasingly seeking opportunities to acquire competitors, secure supply chains, or pivot their business models in response to the shifting economic conditions.

Shifts in Valuation and Financing: Valuations have become a contentious issue in many M&A transactions due to the uncertainty about future revenue streams and profitability. The economic impact of the pandemic has led to a reevaluation of target companies' worth, often resulting in downward adjustments or more complex earn-out arrangements. Additionally, financing these transactions has become more challenging, as lenders are more cautious, leading to stricter borrowing terms and increased equity requirements from buyers.

Due Diligence Process Adaptations: The due diligence process has undergone significant changes to accommodate the realities of a pandemic-impacted world. There is a heightened focus on the target company's resilience to pandemics and other global disruptions. Aspects such as cybersecurity, remote work capabilities, and supply chain security are now scrutinized more rigorously. Potential buyers are also assessing the target’s health and safety protocols and their impact on operations and employee productivity.

Regulatory and Compliance Considerations: Regulatory scrutiny has intensified, with governments more closely examining M&A transactions for national security concerns, especially in technology and healthcare sectors. Compliance with new health regulations and employment laws has also become a crucial aspect of the due diligence process.

Strategic Realignments: Companies are strategically realigning their M&A goals to focus on core competencies and divest non-core assets. This shift is partly driven by the need to bolster balance sheets and ensure liquidity. The pandemic has also accelerated the adoption of technology across sectors, prompting companies to invest in digital capabilities either through acquisitions or partnerships.

Geopolitical Impact and Market Dynamics: Geopolitical tensions and changing trade policies have also influenced M&A strategies. Companies are considering the geopolitical stability of regions when making acquisition decisions, which has led to an increase in regional deals and a decrease in cross-border transactions, particularly where political or pandemic-related risks are deemed too high.

In conclusion, the M&A landscape is continuously evolving in response to the dynamic changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Companies are not only adjusting their strategies to the current challenges but are also preparing for future disruptions, ensuring that resilience and flexibility are integral to their long-term strategic planning. This adaptability is crucial in navigating the complexities of modern M&A transactions in a post-pandemic world.

MAE Clauses and Litigation Trends

Material Adverse Effect (MAE) clauses are critical components in merger and acquisition (M&A) agreements, designed to protect buyers from significant changes that worsen the target company's financial health before the transaction closes. During the COVID-19 pandemic, these clauses have been at the forefront of contract renegotiations and disputes, reflecting the increased volatility and uncertainty in global markets.

Understanding MAE Clauses: Typically, an MAE clause allows a buyer to withdraw from a deal if a significant event negatively impacts the financial position or operations of the target company substantially. These clauses are meticulously negotiated to balance risk between the buyer and seller, delineating what constitutes a material adverse change in the business. Standard MAE clauses cover a range of scenarios, excluding "acts of God," natural disasters, and broad market downturns, which are considered systemic risks and thus generally borne by the buyer.

COVID-19 as a Trigger for MAE: The pandemic introduced complexities in the application of MAE clauses. Given its unprecedented nature and sweeping impact on global economies, COVID-19 tested the boundaries of these clauses. The main question faced by courts and arbitration panels has been whether COVID-19 falls under typical MAE exclusions like acts of God or force majeure. Importantly, most agreements drafted pre-pandemic did not specifically reference pandemics as a force majeure event, leading to a surge in litigations.

Litigation and Precedents: The interpretation of MAE clauses in the context of COVID-19 has varied significantly across jurisdictions. Some rulings have favored buyers, allowing them to terminate agreements based on the substantial and unforeseeable impacts of the pandemic. Others have upheld that COVID-19 effects are part of broader market changes, thus not justifying contract termination under MAE provisions. These decisions often hinge on the specific language of the clause and the factual circumstances surrounding the transaction.

Recent Trends in MAE Negotiations: In response to the pandemic, there is a clear trend towards more explicitly defining the scope of MAE clauses. Parties are now more likely to include pandemics as a specific exception or, conversely, to explicitly state that pandemics do not trigger MAE provisions. This shift aims to reduce ambiguities and potential disputes regarding the interpretation of these clauses in future crises.

Strategic Implications for M&A: Companies are advised to approach MAE clauses with heightened diligence. This involves carefully considering potential risks, including public health crises, that could impact the target's operations. Legal counsel plays a crucial role in crafting clauses that are clear, precise, and reflective of the current risk landscape. Businesses must also stay informed about evolving legal standards and precedents that could influence the interpretation of MAE clauses in their jurisdiction.

In conclusion, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of MAE clauses in protecting the interests of parties in M&A transactions. As businesses and legal practitioners continue to navigate these turbulent times, the lessons learned will likely influence contract negotiations and the structuring of M&A deals for years to come, ensuring better preparedness for future global disruptions.

Operation in Ordinary Course

The concept of operation in the ordinary course of business has become a focal point in M&A transactions amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This legal clause is traditionally included in M&A agreements to assure that the target company maintains its regular operations without significant changes that might affect its value between the signing and closing of the deal. The pandemic, however, has compelled many businesses to alter their typical operations dramatically, leading to potential breaches of these clauses and subsequent disputes.

Challenges to Ordinary Operations: During the pandemic, businesses faced lockdowns, supply chain disruptions, and shifts in consumer behavior, necessitating rapid operational changes. Decisions such as laying off employees, altering supply chain strategies, or pivoting to online services, while necessary for survival, often deviated from the 'ordinary course' of business operations. These changes have raised questions about what constitutes 'ordinary' in unprecedented times.

Legal Disputes and Interpretation: The interpretation of 'ordinary course of business' clauses has seen significant legal scrutiny during the pandemic. Buyers have argued that actions taken by sellers, which were ostensibly to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19, have violated these clauses. Sellers, conversely, argue that these measures were necessary and prudent under the extraordinary circumstances posed by the pandemic, thus not breaching the agreed terms.

Examples from Recent Cases: In several high-profile M&A disputes, courts have had to consider whether measures taken in response to COVID-19 fall within the scope of reasonable management discretion under ordinary business operations. The outcomes have largely depended on the specific wording of the clause and the context of the actions taken by the target company.

Revised Clause Negotiations: In light of these disputes, there is a growing trend towards explicitly defining what constitutes the ordinary course of business within the framework of current and future potential crises. Parties are now negotiating these clauses with more precision, often including provisions for compliance with government mandates, health and safety measures, and even potential operational pivots that may be necessary due to ongoing or future pandemics.

Strategic Considerations for Businesses: Companies are advised to document thoroughly and communicate clearly any deviations from normal operations and the reasons for these changes to avoid potential post-closing disputes. Furthermore, aligning strategic decisions with industry standards and seeking prior consent from the acquirer when possible can help mitigate risks associated with breaches of this clause.

Future Outlook: As businesses continue to operate under the shadow of COVID-19 and other potential global disruptions, the definition of ordinary operations in M&A contexts will continue to evolve. Both buyers and sellers must remain adaptable, considerate of evolving legal interpretations, and proactive in their contractual negotiations to reflect the new realities of business operations.

In conclusion, the operation in the ordinary course clause, once a standard boilerplate text in M&A agreements, has gained unprecedented significance. As the global business environment continues to grapple with the effects of the pandemic, this clause will remain a critical area of focus, negotiation, and potential litigation in M&A transactions.

Due Diligence Adjustments

The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated significant adjustments in the due diligence processes undertaken during M&A transactions. These adjustments reflect the need to address new risks and uncertainties introduced by the pandemic, reshaping how companies evaluate potential acquisition targets. This section explores the key areas of focus in due diligence that have emerged or intensified due to the pandemic.

Enhanced Scrutiny of Financial Health: Financial due diligence has intensified, with a particular focus on liquidity, cash flow stability, and the target company’s ability to withstand prolonged economic disruptions. Buyers are now more meticulously analyzing how target companies managed financial pressures during the pandemic, including their access to emergency funding, cost management strategies, and the impact on revenue streams.

Operational Resilience: Operational due diligence now requires a deeper analysis of the target's ability to adapt to rapid changes in market conditions. This includes assessing the robustness of supply chains, the flexibility of operational processes, and the effectiveness of remote work systems. Buyers are particularly interested in how well the target company managed to maintain operations during lockdowns and how quickly it could adapt to changing regulations and market demands.

Regulatory Compliance and Risk Management: There is an increased emphasis on understanding the regulatory changes that have occurred in response to the pandemic, including health and safety regulations, employment laws, and industry-specific guidelines. Due diligence now often includes a comprehensive review of the target’s compliance with these new regulations and its risk management strategies, particularly in relation to pandemic response and preparedness.

Technology and Cybersecurity Assessments: The pandemic has accelerated digital transformation, making technology due diligence even more critical. Buyers are scrutinizing the target’s IT infrastructure to ensure it supports remote working, e-commerce, and digital operations securely. Cybersecurity assessments have become a staple in due diligence processes, given the increased vulnerabilities associated with expanded digital footprints and remote work setups.

Human Resources and Cultural Due Diligence: The human aspect of due diligence has gained prominence, with a focus on how the target company has managed workforce challenges during the pandemic. This includes evaluating changes to employee benefits, workforce reductions, and how effectively the company has communicated with and supported its employees during the crisis. Cultural due diligence also assesses the resilience of the organizational culture in adapting to the changes brought by the pandemic.

Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Factors: The pandemic has heightened the importance of ESG factors in investment decisions. Buyers are paying closer attention to the target’s social impact, particularly its response to COVID-19 in terms of employee health and community support, as well as its governance practices during the crisis.

Revising Due Diligence Practices for Future Preparedness: Companies are not only adjusting their due diligence practices for current transactions but are also revising their overall approach to be better prepared for future global crises. This includes developing more dynamic due diligence frameworks that can rapidly adapt to changing circumstances and incorporate real-time data analytics to provide deeper insights into the target’s operations and risks.

In conclusion, due diligence processes during M&A transactions have been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with an expanded scope and depth to address the new challenges. As companies continue to navigate these uncertain times, the lessons learned and practices adopted will likely influence how due diligence is conducted long into the future, ensuring that businesses are better prepared for any disruptions that may arise.

Financial and Legal Reconsiderations

The financial and legal landscapes of mergers and acquisitions (M&A) have undergone significant transformations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Companies engaged in M&A activities are reevaluating their financial assumptions and legal strategies to adapt to the evolving economic environment. This section discusses key financial and legal reconsiderations that have become imperative in the current M&A context.

Reassessment of Valuation Models: The economic impact of the pandemic has necessitated a thorough reassessment of traditional valuation methods. Companies are now incorporating more conservative estimates and stress-testing scenarios to account for potential future disruptions. Valuation models are increasingly including variables such as pandemic-related losses, recovery rates, and the cost of capital adjustments to reflect higher market volatility and risks.

Adjustments in Deal Structures: The uncertainty ushered in by the pandemic has led to adjustments in deal structures. Earn-outs and contingency payments are becoming more commonplace, allowing buyers to tie a portion of the payment to the future performance of the target company. This aligns the interests of both parties and mitigates the buyer’s risk in the event of post-acquisition performance dips due to ongoing or future disruptions.

Enhanced Focus on Legal Safeguards: There is a heightened focus on incorporating robust legal safeguards into M&A agreements. This includes more detailed material adverse change (MAC) clauses, which are designed to provide an exit or renegotiation route should significant negative changes occur before the transaction closes. Specific pandemic-related representations and warranties are also being negotiated to address potential liabilities and risks directly associated with the pandemic.

Strategic Use of Escrow and Holdback Arrangements: To manage post-closing risks effectively, parties are increasingly relying on escrow and holdback arrangements. These arrangements ensure that a portion of the purchase price is set aside to cover any unforeseen liabilities or adjustments. This is particularly relevant for dealing with potential legal and regulatory changes that could affect the target company’s operations or financial health post-acquisition.

Legal Compliance and Risk Management: Companies are taking greater care to ensure compliance with evolving legal standards and regulations triggered by the pandemic. This includes enhanced due diligence on the target’s compliance with health and safety laws, employment practices, and new government regulations enacted in response to COVID-19. Additionally, risk management strategies are being updated to include pandemic-specific risks, focusing on areas such as employee health, supply chain disruptions, and customer contracts.

Negotiation of Contract Terms: Negotiation strategies have shifted to place greater emphasis on flexibility and long-term sustainability. Parties are crafting contracts with more flexible terms to accommodate ongoing uncertainties. This includes provisions for renegotiation of terms based on evolving economic and health conditions, and clauses that allow for adjustments based on future legal and regulatory changes.

Future-proofing M&A Agreements: There is a concerted effort to future-proof M&A agreements against similar global crises. This involves including comprehensive disaster recovery plans and business continuity strategies as integral components of the due diligence and negotiation phases. The aim is to ensure that the target company is prepared to handle future disruptions without significant value loss.

In conclusion, the financial and legal frameworks within which M&A transactions are conducted have been critically impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Companies are now required to think strategically about how they assess, negotiate, and structure deals to safeguard against the financial and legal ramifications of current and future global disruptions. These adjustments are crucial not only for the immediate success of transactions but also for their long-term viability in an increasingly uncertain world.


The COVID-19 pandemic has indelibly altered the landscape of mergers and acquisitions (M&A), introducing a new layer of complexity to an already intricate process. This transformation has compelled companies to reevaluate their strategies, risk assessments, and operational methodologies to adapt to a dramatically changed global environment. As we reflect on the profound impacts and the lessons learned during the pandemic, several key insights emerge that will shape the future of M&A.

Firstly, the importance of flexibility and resilience in M&A transactions has been underscored. Companies have learned that adaptability in deal structures, due diligence processes, and negotiation terms is crucial. The ability to respond swiftly to changing circumstances—whether they are market fluctuations, regulatory changes, or global health crises—can significantly influence the success of a transaction.

Secondly, the pandemic has highlighted the need for enhanced due diligence, particularly with a focus on financial robustness, operational resilience, and compliance with health and safety standards. The increased emphasis on these areas will likely persist, as they are critical in ensuring that companies can withstand similar future disruptions.

Furthermore, the legal frameworks governing M&A activities have been tested, leading to a broader reconsideration of standard contractual provisions such as Material Adverse Effect (MAE) clauses and ordinary course covenants. The evolution of these legal standards is essential for providing clarity and security to all parties involved, helping them navigate through periods of uncertainty.

The strategic shifts made during the pandemic have also emphasized the value of technology and innovation in facilitating efficient and secure M&A transactions. The accelerated digital transformation within the M&A sector is expected to continue, enhancing processes from deal sourcing to post-merger integration.

Looking ahead, it is clear that the experiences of the pandemic will continue to influence how businesses approach M&A. The lessons learned are paving the way for more robust strategies that consider a wider range of risks and include comprehensive plans for managing those risks. Companies are likely to place a greater emphasis on crisis preparedness, ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) factors, and corporate resilience, shaping a new era of M&A that prioritizes sustainability and adaptability.

In conclusion, while the COVID-19 pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges, it has also fostered innovation and strategic thinking in the M&A arena. As businesses move forward, the insights gained during this period will be invaluable in driving future transactions towards greater success and resilience in an ever-evolving global market.

Looking to Buy a Business?
Get 1000+ weekly deals on businesses fore sale
Looking to Sell your Business?
Get a real time free business valuation
Find Profitable Businesses For Sale
Premium listings available exclusively through Openfair. Each represents a strategic opportunity for growth.