I sometimes think that the world of finance and capital markets is the most interesting spectator sport there ever is. Just look at the GameStop saga that played out on Reddit, Twitter, Robinhood and the stock markets—the market cap of an almost bankrupt video games retailer skyrocketing to billions of dollars, a group of day traders making a killing, hedge funds running to the ground, a unicorn startup called Robinhood facing an existential dilemma and average investors left wondering what happened to their money?

What drives the financial markets? FOMO—the Fear Of Missing Out. When one concept, stock, or segment starts seeing heavy investor activity, how can investors know whether that’s just FOMO rearing its head, or if the underlying fundamentals are truly strong? I've been thinking about this a lot in the context of the rising number of SPACs—did you know that in 2020 alone there were 248 SPAC IPOs in the U.S. raising $83 billion collectively—that’s half the number of all IPOs in the U.S. What’s more, marquee investors like Chamath Palihapitiya and Bill Ackman and celebrities like former basketball star Shaquille O’Neal have emerged as key sponsors of many of these SPACs, giving such companies and their fundraises greater prominence and thus increasing the buzz and chatter around them. And now the action is closer home, with Sumant Sinha’s ReNew Power merging with one such SPAC—making it the first big SPAC deal by an Indian company, since Yatra back in 2016. But we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves. Let’s start at the beginning.

What is a SPAC?

While there are many rules and regulations associated with SPACs, at its simplest a SPAC is a company that is set up by someone with an investment pedigree (known as the sponsor) with the sole purpose of listing and acquiring another company. The full form of SPAC, is, in fact, special purpose acquisition company.

Image : Graphics by Chetan Singh

Like you saw, a SPAC’s only ‘business’ is to raise funds through an IPO and then hunt for the target company with which it will merge—which is why such an entity is also referred to as a “blank cheque company”. During the IPO, investors purchase shares and get warrants that offer them an upside and act as a sweetener. The capital raised through the IPO is placed in an interest-bearing trust account until the target company is identified.

The SPAC has about two years to discover this target and complete a reverse merger. If it fails to do so, it has to return the money with interest to the investors. In such an event, the sponsor loses his investment. If some investors do not find the target company attractive, they can redeem their shares and do not lose the initial investment.

The deal value of the acquisition could be four to five times higher than the funds raised by the SPAC. The difference is met through fresh investments, mainly in the form of Private Investment in Public Equity (PIPE) deals. At the time of a public listing, large private equity and hedge funds can directly invest in and acquire shares of a company at share price or at a discount without going through the stock markets. The funds get access to non-public information on the potential target company from the SPAC after signing a non-disclosure agreement and get the option to invest at the time of the merger.

But why are SPACs hot now?

In a sentence, it is the sheer volume of dry powder sitting with investors. Global PE dry powder is at about $2.5 trillion. SPACs also offer a simplified path to taking a company public and to access the public markets for both investors and private companies.

What’s in it for investors?

For the record, we cannot list a SPAC in India due to various rules and regulations around shell companies. But investors and funds based in India can participate in a U.S.-based SPAC IPO just like they would in a regular IPO.

For investors, there are various reasons for sponsoring or investing in a SPAC. Let’s look at a few of them:

1) In regular IPOs, the focus is on the past performance of a company and forward-looking statements are penalised. That’s not the case with a SPAC IPO as there is no past performance to talk about and plans and futuristic statements are protected under safe harbour laws.

2) A marquee investor leading a SPAC acts as a confidence booster for other investors and the chances of a number of investors backing such a SPAC goes up.

3) For the sponsor, the substantial founder shares and warrants are valuable. It is not every day that you get to own 20% of a company for $25,000.

4) For regular investors, SPACs make for a safe bet because their funds are parked in a trust and invested in U.S. Treasuries until the merger.

What about Indian startups?

For Indian tech companies, a SPAC is a potential route to a U.S. IPO. This is what Yatra did in 2016 when it reverse-merged with Terrapin 3 Acquisition Corp., in a deal that valued the online travel agency at $218 million. In 2015, Videocon d2h had also sold a 33.5% stake to the U.S.-based SPAC Silver Eagle Acquisition Corp for about $375 million. And now we have ReNew Power merging with RMG II, which raised $345 million in its December 14, 2020 IPO. RMG II is sponsored and led by Jim Carpenter, Bob Mancini, and Phil Kassin and anchored by marquee institutional investors like Chamath Palihapitiya, BlackRock, BNP Paribas Energy Transition Fund, Sylebra Capital, and others.

Image : Graphics by Chetan Singh

Why is this route attractive to Indian tech startups?

1) Doing a regular IPO is a time-consuming and expensive affair for even highly valued companies. A reverse merger with a U.S. SPAC offers a back-door entry to the U.S. public market.

2) A company’s IPO depends on past performance. In a reverse merger with a SPAC, a public company is acquiring a private company, with the latter becoming the public entity in the end.

3) The target company also benefits from safe harbour protections and can make forward-looking claims and projections. It can also disclose greater and confidential information to the investors taking part in a private placement and these investments are then publicly disclosed, acting as an effective validation tool.

4) While a traditional IPO can take between 12 months and 18 months, a reverse-merger is done and dusted with negotiations lasting for just a few months.

5) For late-stage companies, this route allows them to raise funds with common shares rather than preferred shares like in a PE deal. Moreover, valuations are more realistic and the target company has greater say and control as they are part of a merger negotiation.

What’s the downside?

If everything was great about SPACs, this would be the most preferred IPO path. But that isn’t the case because there are risks and costs:

1) For an investor intending to stay the full course, there is the risk of a merger never happening. Right now about 300 SPACs with around $90 billion are on the hunt for companies to acquire. How many of them will eventually find a truly valuable target is a question whose answer we will know only in a couple of years.

2) While the sponsor can make huge returns on their investment, individual investors who come in late see a limited upside. As Goldman Sachs Group Inc. chief executive officer David Solomon warned, if the ‘bubble’ bursts, the handful of insiders will walk away with their money.

Considering a large number of SPACs being launched and allegations against some of them, it is no wonder that there is rising scrutiny and this is welcome. There are calls for better disclosures and greater checks on sponsors so they have more responsibility towards investors. Better regulations will weed out unscrupulous players and lead to better outcomes. The increased competition among SPAC sponsors for investor money is also resulting in more equitable structuring, ensuring sponsors do not have an extraordinary advantage over later investors.

That said, the SPAC space still has a bit of the Wild West about it—with elements of high risk, the potential for spectacular windfalls, and fewer rules all intertwined. Investors will do well to keep this in mind when they go SPAC-ing.

Views are personal. The author is president, LetsVenture Plus.

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