Assets or Stock: The Form of Purchase DOES Make a Difference

Purchasing or selling a business can be accomplished in a number of ways. While the objective of the transaction is always the same – transfer of ownership from a seller to a buyer – the form of the transaction does make a difference. When it comes to the purchase or sale of a business, the form of the sale has significant implications, not only at the time of sale but with regard to operations going forward. 

The purchase or sale of a business is generally accomplished by either a stock sale or a sale of substantially all of the assets of the company. The form of the transaction has important implications for both buyers and sellers in several key areas:

Liability

Purchasers of stock essentially “step into the shoes” of the seller. This means that the purchaser assumes all of the liabilities of the acquired business – whether known or unknown, whether past or future. Such liabilities may be extensive and include liability for debt or purchases; losses arising from injuries caused by products or services provided by the purchased entity; claims of trademark or patent infringement; and liabilities based on employment discrimination, wrongful termination or violation of wage and hour laws. 

Constructing the transaction as a purchase of assets of the company may enable a purchaser to avoid some potential liabilities inherent in a stock transaction. Yet, even asset purchases carry some risk of assumption of unknown liabilities. Asset purchasers may be responsible for undisclosed liabilities if it appears that they have implicitly accepted liabilities, or where there is sufficient continuity of enterprise that the transaction can be considered a de facto merger.
 

Scope of Purchase

One of the advantages of an asset purchase agreement is the opportunity it affords the buyer to “pick and choose” the assets that the buyer deems most desirable for the business. Obsolete inventory or redundant equipment can remain with the seller, in contrast to a stock purchase that transfers every and all assets owned by the business. Asset buyers, however, must be careful to ensure that the asset purchase agreement has a complete and comprehensive description of all of the assets necessary to operate the business or they will face some unwelcome surprises at closing.

Taxes

Tax and accounting treatment for asset purchases vary significantly from that afforded stock transactions. Purchasers of stock continue to carry assets on the books on the same basis as the seller. Stock sellers recognize a gain to the extent the sale price for the stock exceeds their basis.  In contrast, an asset sale requires the buyer to adjust the basis of the assets that are acquired based on the fair market value. This may result in an increase or decrease in the book value and depreciation for such assets.

What is clear is that no form of transaction – stock purchase or asset purchase – is inherently “good” or “bad.”  Each form has advantages and disadvantages for buyers and sellers and the decision of which form to adopt can be difficult – especially since what advantages one party may be disadvantageous to the other. In many cases, other elements of the transaction can be used to reduce risk and to satisfy the core objectives. 
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