Federalism has always posed challenges for middle market M&A. While compliance with federal laws and regulation does not typically lead to issues in acquirers’ due diligence on middle market companies, the companies do often have problems with those pesky out-of-state state-level issues. Experience indicates that this is true for a variety of reasons. First, many of these companies have only recently expanded into other states and, as is common in a growing business, operations often get ahead of back office tasks (such as compliance). Second, owners of middle market businesses are often selling precisely because they realize that their businesses have grown to the point that they require additional overhead expenses that the owners are not interested in dealing with. Third, ever states’ rules are different and ever-changing and it is very hard to get a handle on six, or a dozen, or 49 different sets of rules and shape a business compliant with each set. Fourth, and nobody likes to admit this, states can be a bit lax on enforcing their rules, especially on out-of-state companies. Acquirers are well aware of these facts and, as a result, dig deep on state-level issues in their due diligence.
While very few business owners are attorneys, most have at least a vague sense that when they establish a “physical presence” in a state, they need to start worrying about that state’s laws. Most probably also realize that physical presence is a bit fuzzy and that each state interprets the term differently but the US Constitution places a limit on the breadth of that definition due to the Interstate Commerce Clause. So, this has always been a nebulous issue but at least there was a bit of a bright line test around when a company might have to start thinking about looking at the rules in a new state for things such as income tax, collection of sales tax, workers compensation and the like.
Ah, things were so much easier before 2018.
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Then, on October 1, 2018, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in the case of South Dakota v. Wayfair Inc., et al. South Dakota was attempting to require the online retailer Wayfair to collect sales tax for online sales for which goods were shipped into the state’s boundaries. Wayfair had a very strong case that it had no physical presence in the state and therefore the state could not force it to do anything, especially not collect taxes for Pierre. The state argued that it had a very powerful statute that said even without physical presence it could force companies to collect sales tax on sales made into the state if the seller had an “economic presence” in the state. Wayfair responded that decades of Supreme Court rulings indicated that this statute violated the US Constitution as an unfair restraint on interstate commerce. The Supreme Court stepped in and changed its mind.
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Since that day, the bright line with regard to when to start worrying about a state has been erased – at least with regard to sales tax. And, in the four months following the opinion, states have begun to rub that big eraser across other areas of law as well. The next to disappear is likely state income tax, then perhaps use tax, workers compensation, and unemployment insurance. As of the writing of this article, of the 45 states that have a sales tax, all but eight have already passed the economic contacts test for sales tax. (That sure didn’t take long.) How many middle market companies (selling items subject to sales tax) have adapted their practices to this tsunami of a tax change? From what we’ve seen, just about zero. How many acquirers have adjusted their due diligence process? Let’s say the adoption rate there is at least as fast as those of the 45 states - and that is being generous to the states.
The results on M&A already include (i) longer due diligence, (ii) acquirers demanding larger escrows and holdbacks, and (iii) purchase price adjustments. The longer middle market companies go without getting up to speed on the new reality, the larger the potential penalties on the business once the acquirer gets hold of it and therefore the larger the issues will become in the deal process.
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