Urge to Converge

Corporate America's Dealmakers Are Cross-Pollinating

Convergence continues to be a running theme for both large and small transactions.
Photographer: PATRICK PLEUL/AFP/Getty Images

Millennials are known to dislike labels. Now the mergers and acquisitions market is shedding them, too. 

One of 2017's big deal trends was the blurring of industry lines. Retailers are buying software and online outposts, wireless providers are looking to own content, and Amazon.com Inc., the king of e-commerce, scooped up a brick-and-mortar food retailer, Whole Foods Market.

Comeback Year?

Global deal volume was dragged down by weaker activity in the U.S., but that's expected to change in 2018

Source: Bloomberg

Convergence among industries continues to be a running theme for both large and small transactions. That means analysts and bankers who specialize in once-distinct areas of focus may need to bone up on other sectors. It also will make it that much harder to predict the hottest sectors for M&A. Instead, pay closer attention to the underlying motivations for dealmaking, according to Russell Thomson, national managing partner for M&A services at Deloitte.

Why Do a Deal?

Here are some of the top objectives that potential dealmakers said they had in considering acquisitions this year:

Source: Deloitte survey

Some of the largest transactions now are the so-called vertical megamergers such as CVS Health Corp.'s offer for Aetna Inc. Deals like these are being driven by the shrinking growth opportunities within certain lines of business and the cost-saving benefits of having scale up and down the supply chain. Some industry giants may also view these transactions as a way to bypass antitrust hurdles. AT&T Inc.'s lawyers, for example, are putting an extra emphasis on the vertical nature of the company's Time Warner Inc. takeover in their argument that the government should allow it to pass. 

Then there are the smaller add-on deals. These are primarily for tech assets -- because nowadays everybody wants to be a tech company. In fact, the No. 1 strategic driver of M&A this year will be acquiring technology assets, according to a survey of about 1,000 corporate executives and private equity firm leaders conducted for Deloitte. 

Notice how words like software, digital and technology have been lighting up more and more press releases as companies from Walt Disney Co. and General Electric Co. to Ford Motor Co. and Office Depot Inc. make investments rooted in tech to address the changing needs of their customers. None of their maneuvers have been as radical -- or comical -- as the Long Island iced tea company that re-branded itself last month as Long Blockchain Corp., trying to take advantage of the fervor over bitcoin and the technology that enables it. 

Try Something New

U.S. companies are increasingly making acquisitions outside their wheelhouses. Here are some examples from 2017:

Source: Bloomberg

There were about $2.7 trillion of mergers and acquisitions globally last year, the lowest tally since 2013. That's because takeover activity in the U.S. was subdued much of the year as CEOs grappled with the uncertain outcomes of major legislative proposals and an ambiguous White House administration. There were a couple of bombshells toward the end of 2017: the CVS-Aetna merger and Disney's $66 billion offer for most of 21st Century Fox Inc.'s TV and film assets. As for next year, nearly two-thirds of Deloitte's survey respondents expect heftier deals in 2018. Says Thomson:

The optimism around more and bigger transactions is real and still there.

Part of the motivation may be that executives are attesting to more successful transactions. Only 12 percent of corporate respondents said that the majority of their deals didn't meet expectations for returns or value creation, a drop from 40 percent in a spring 2016 survey. That is certainly an overlooked but encouraging point -- if true. With takeover valuations, particularly in the U.S., holding at elevated levels, I need more evidence to believe we're not seeing more desperate deals than smart ones. Case in point: the food industry

But whether justified or not, megamerger mashups are poised to return in 2018, and they may not fit neatly into one box. It will be a test of which CEOs can cut it outside of their comfort zones. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Tara Lachapelle in New York at tlachapelle@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Beth Williams at bewilliams@bloomberg.net

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