From a legal point of view, a merger is a legal consolidation of two entities into one entity, whereas an acquisition occurs when one entity takes ownership of another entity's stock, equity interests or assets. From a commercial and economic point of view, both types of transactions generally result in the consolidation of assets and liabilities under one entity, and the distinction between a "merger" and an "acquisition" is less clear. A transaction legally structured as a merger may have the effect of placing one party's business under the indirect ownership of the other party's shareholders, while a transaction legally structured as an acquisition may give each party's shareholders partial ownership and control of the combined enterprise. A deal may be euphemistically called a "merger of equals" if both CEOs agree that joining together is in the best interest of both of their companies, while when the deal is unfriendly (that is, when the management of the target company opposes the deal) it may be regarded as an "acquisition".
An acquisition or takeover is the purchase of one business or company by another company or other business entity. Such purchase may be of 100%, or nearly 100%, of the assets or ownership equity of the acquired entity. Consolidation occurs when two companies combine to form a new enterprise altogether, and neither of the previous companies remains independently. Acquisitions are divided into "private" and "public" acquisitions, depending on whether the acquiree or merging company (also termed a target) is or is not listed on a public stock market. Some public companies rely on acquisitions as an important value creation strategy. An additional dimension or categorization consists of whether an acquisition is friendly or hostile.
Achieving acquisition success has proven to be very difficult, while various studies have shown that 50% of acquisitions were unsuccessful. "Serial acquirers" appear to be more successful with M&A than companies who only make an acquisition occasionally (see Douma & Schreuder, 2013, chapter 13). The new forms of buy out created since the crisis are based on serial type acquisitions known as an ECO Buyout which is a co-community ownership buy out and the new generation buy outs of the MIBO (Management Involved or Management & Institution Buy Out) and MEIBO (Management & Employee Involved Buy Out).
Whether a purchase is perceived as being a "friendly" one or "hostile" depends significantly on how the proposed acquisition is communicated to and perceived by the target company's board of directors, employees and shareholders. It is normal for M&A deal communications to take place in a so-called "confidentiality bubble" wherein the flow of information is restricted pursuant to confidentiality agreements. In the case of a friendly transaction, the companies cooperate in negotiations; in the case of a hostile deal, the board and/or management of the target is unwilling to be bought or the target's board has no prior knowledge of the offer. Hostile acquisitions can, and often do, ultimately become "friendly", as the acquiror secures endorsement of the transaction from the board of the acquiree company. This usually requires an improvement in the terms of the offer and/or through negotiation.
"Acquisition" usually refers to a purchase of a smaller firm by a larger one. Sometimes, however, a smaller firm will acquire management control of a larger and/or longer-established company and retain the name of the latter for the post-acquisition combined entity. This is known as a reverse takeover. Another type of acquisition is the reverse merger, a form of transaction that enables a private company to be publicly listed in a relatively short time frame. A reverse merger occurs when a privately held company (often one that has strong prospects and is eager to raise financing) buys a publicly listed shell company, usually one with no business and limited assets.
The combined evidence suggests that the shareholders of acquired firms realize significant positive "abnormal returns" while shareholders of the acquiring company are most likely to experience a negative wealth effect. The overall net effect of M&A transactions appears to be positive: almost all studies report positive returns for the investors in the combined buyer and target firms. This implies that M&A creates economic value, presumably by transferring assets to management teams that operate them more efficiently (see Douma & Schreuder, 2013, chapter 13).