By Alex Sherman and Zachary R. Mider -
Oct 22, 2010 12:01 AM ET
This year’s rebound in mergers and acquisitions has one conspicuously large absence: the megadeal.
Announced takeovers of more than $25 billion are set to make up the smallest percentage of total deal volume in any year since 2002, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. BHP Billiton Ltd.’s offer for Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan Inc. is the only bid this year valued at more than $30 billion, and there have been only two others valued at more than $25 billion, including net debt.
Companies are spending stockpiled cash on smaller competitors that complement their business rather than pursuing transformational takeovers. While 73 percent of transactions this year have been less than $5 billion, the purchases have put dealmaking on pace to surpass last year’s $1.78 trillion in volume and may portend the return of more sizeable acquisitions.
“The drop-off in the very large transactions is masking a significant pickup in $1 billion to $5 billion deals,” said Gary Posternack, head of M&A for the Americas at Barclays Plc, in an interview. “Companies are looking at transactions that are lower risk, closer to the core business of the acquirer, and perceived as being synergistic.”
The biggest deals so far this year account for just 5.8 percent of total volume, while acquisitions from $1 billion to $5 billion have risen to 34 percent, the highest in at least a decade, according to Bloomberg data. Transactions less than $1 billion account for 39 percent of the total, a six-year high, the data show.
Many conditions for a comeback in bigger deals are in place. The 1,000 largest non-financial companies have almost $3 trillion on their balance sheets, and financing rates are near record lows. The Federal Reserve’s October Beige Book, released Oct. 20, noted that M&A lending picked up in some areas.
There is pent-up demand for smaller deals even if banks are unwilling to commit tens of billions of dollars in financing, according to Hiter Harris, managing director and co-founder of Harris Williams Co. in Richmond, Virginia, whose firm specializes in advising on transactions valued at less than $1 billion.
“The middle-market deal flow is a six- to nine-month leading indicator for the rest of the market and the economy,” said Harris, who expects more deals will top $25 billion in 2011.
Banks are willing to lend to creditworthy buyers, as evidenced by the $45 billion of loans Melbourne-based BHP Billiton obtained for its Potash bid. Potash rejected the $40 billion offer, excluding debt, as too low.
‘Story of Ego’
Other potential targets may also be balking at offers because they anticipate their valuations will rise, according to Sachin Shah, a special situations and merger arbitrage strategist at Capstone Global Markets LLC in New York.
“This is a story of ego,” said Shah. “Boards are saying, ’I’m a $25 billion company, I’m not the prey, I’m a survivor, I’m the predator.’”
Buyers don’t appear to be looking for transformational opportunities, according to Richard Hurowitz, chairman and chief executive officer at Octavian Advisors LP, who invests in risk arbitrage. Instead, they are actively seeking strategic deals with more “reasonable” valuations, he said.
International Business Machines Corp.’s pending takeover of Netezza Corp. for $1.67 billion and Unilever’s agreement to buy Alberto-Culver Co. for $3.7 billion are two examples of same- industry, all-cash deals announced since the beginning of September.
While deals between $5 billion and $25 billion have increased from last year, both in total number and in overall value, they are still below levels from 2005 to 2008, data show.
None of the three biggest deals this year have involved a U.S. company. The country’s unemployment rate is hovering at 9.6 percent and consumer confidence unexpectedly fell in October.
Aside from BHP, the other announced offers topping $25 billion this year are GDF Suez SA’s $25.8 billion bid for London-based International Power Plc and America Movil SAB’s $25.7 billion proposed purchase of Carso Global Telecom SAB. Both of those companies are controlled by billionaire Carlos Slim.
The compiled data include net debt and exclude terminated deals, such as this year’s $35.5 billion bid by London-based Prudential Plc to buy Hong Kong-based AIA Group Ltd.
A potential change in capital gains tax rates has also fueled smaller acquisitions, said Harris. President Barack Obama has proposed raising long-term capital-gain rates to 20 percent from 15 percent for individuals who earn more than $200,000 and couples that earn more than $250,000.
“The possible change in rates is a significant event for middle-market companies, but if you’re a $25 billion company, you’re probably not as focused on the changes,” Harris said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Sherman in New York at email@example.com; Zachary R. Mider in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org.