Opinion: Avoid financial deals that look too good to be true

Portrait of two business partners hugging and smiling with happiness standing in modern glass hall

The corporate hug could be a cautionary tale - always be wary of deals which seem too good to be true - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Unless they’re representative of true love, adult embraces tend to be rather one-sided affairs.

There’s no mistaking the mutual fire when Romeo and Juliet or Antony and Cleopatra lock in warm embrace, but the contrived clutch can be just plain awkward, at least for the less committed participant.

Nowhere is this more evident than when two blokes come together in a ‘man hug’ and one of them is decidedly less than enthusiastic about the idea of wrapping his arms around another chap. Granted, this brief movement has become de rigueur ever since characters in The Sopranos – still the greatest television series of all time – used it to great effect, but a manly handshake or a lockdown-inspired fist bump remains the preferred form of greeting for most males.

I mention this after reading Robert Sicina’s book, Learn From Failure and being reminded of several corporate disasters, usually mergers or takeovers, none bigger than the one labelled ‘the worst deal in history’ almost as soon as the deal was agreed.

Close up african american businessman shaking hands with caucasian client. Handshake is symbol of st

How do you make a deal? Handshakes are still the preferred gesture - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

If ‘the worst deal in history’ were turned into a movie (as mooted a few years’ ago), I imagine the opening shot would feature Steve Case, youthful founder of America Online (AOL), after he had, incredibly, formally clinched a mind-bogglingly complicated and impossibly lucrative deal with Time Warner at the turn of the century.

Hollywood couldn’t improve upon the setting where the parties announced their deal: the most garish press conference imaginable, replete with dazzling lights and loud music, which climaxed with Case, a rather big man, bounding across the stage to greet his new buddies at Time Warner.

Little did anyone know at the time but, as befitted a man born in Hawaii, Case had somehow managed to catch the largest commercial wave in stock market history and was to ride it for all it was worth.

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The music and applause subsided and, after hopping around on stage like a man on a turbo-powered pogo stick, Case made a bee-line for Time Warner’s chief executive Gerald Levin, whereupon, somewhat incongruously, he proceeded to hug him as though Levin had appeared, genie-like, and granted Case a few dozen outrageous wishes – and then some. Levin appeared more than a little embarrassed with his counterpart’s response, but still Case hugged.

Hollywood street sign on blue sky background, Los Angeles, California.

AOL and Time Warner merging has been considered 'the worst deal in history' - but the idea to turn it into a movie has been mooted - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The protracted embrace proved that there was absolutely no doubt about which party was to be the principle beneficiary of the disastrous merger between AOL and Time Warner, soon labelled ‘the worst deal in history’.

Not for Case it wasn’t, even though shareholders in the newly-merged enterprise subsequently had to contend with the destruction of £113 billion- worth of their company’s value.

Case eventually resigned five years later, ostensibly to devote more time to the company he founded six months earlier and into which he injected a staggering $250 million of his own money.

There were few tears from shareholders when his departure was announced. He will forever be remembered as the man who talked Time Warner into a $160 billion merger at the very height of the dotcom boom in 2000 and then rearranged the new organisation’s title, putting his company’s name ahead of the media outfit’s.

Was Time Warner foolish or just plain incompetent? Certainly following the deal, a number of shareholders raised questions about AOL’s accounting methodology, a line of enquiry which resulted in legal action and investigations by US regulators, most of which were eventually resolved. Together with Gerald Levin, the AOL prefix to the Time Warner name was summarily removed, as were several directors who supported the merger.

Pink piggy bank and coins on background

Investors should bear in mind that if it looks too good to be true, it probably is - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Sensible, or lucky, investors who avoided buying shares in either company will be thanking their lucky stars, but the episode should prompt us to recall the old adage that if something looks too good to be true, it probably is.

It’s worth bearing in mind as some technology company valuations are beginning to look extremely frothy. Most worrying of all are the valuations given to organisations that describe themselves tech outfits but are not.

Investors should be conscious that the next time they see one over-exuberant party to a company merger, the one who is doing all of the hugging, literally or figuratively-speaking, it might be time to consider selling their shares because outfits such as AOL Time Warner still exist.


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