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Companies look to mergers and acquisitions

10:23 AM, Nov 28, 2012   |    comments
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Shoppers may be looking for things to put in their carts this week, but companies are being much more cautious as they look for businesses to buy.

Food-processing giant ConAgra along with real-estate companies Equity Residential and AvalonBay announced Tuesday their plans to make multibillion-dollar acquisitions. While these deals may be noteworthy, they top off what's been a relatively stable year for merger-and-acquisition activity.

This year, there have been 10,346 U.S. merger-and-acquisition deals worth $859.2 billion, says Dealogic. While that's a 9% improvement in the number of deals, it's an 8% decline in terms of the dollar volume.

Such ho-hum merger activity underscores how companies' CEOs are reluctant to use their near-record pile of $985 billion in cash to take on the risk of growing by buying other companies with promising products or technology, says Roger Aguinaldo, CEO of The M&A Advisor.

Seeing the lack of growth in deal activity makes it somewhat of an outlier, as other measures of corporate health, including earnings, dividends and cash, have all rebounded to record levels, says Aguinaldo. Market observers are looking at the flat to slow growth in M&A activity to be a sign of:

Rising role of "strategic" buyers. Most deals are coming from large companies looking for smaller ones to buy and bolster a niche of their business, says Scott Adelson, senior managing director of investment bank Houlihan Lokey. Companies are less willing to take on the risk of giant "transformational" deals in the current environment, he says.

The two deals Tuesday were examples: ConAgra bought Ralcorp, a maker of privately branded food products for $5 billion, while Equity Residential and AvalonBay together paid $6.5 billion for Archstone, an apartment real-estate company owned by Lehman Bros. Holdings, for $6.5 billion.

Big uncertainties. With big question marks over taxation and the fiscal cliff looming, companies are more apt to hold cash than make big acquisitions, says Richard Peterson of S&P Capital IQ. And many large deals might also have been put on hold since it was an election year, says Hemang Desai, professor of accounting at Southern Methodist University.

Cross-currents in the economy. Investors are viewing the late-year uptick in merger activity as a positive, says Robert Maltbie of Millennium Asset Management. Earnings growth, though, is slowing, which makes investors wonder whether M&A activity might sputter next.

Some expect mergers to pick up in December as sellers loosen up to lock in their tax rates before any potential increases, Peterson says.

But Aguinaldo isn't hopeful. "Companies are taking a moment to see what's going on. It's like a long pause," he says.

USA Today

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