Deal makers may want to keep the Champagne bottles on ice a while longer.
Despite a particularly fruitful week in February — when five deals collectively worth more than $91 billion were announced — the business of mergers and acquisitions remains largely stuck in the doldrums.
Only 8,115 deals were announced worldwide in the first quarter of this year, the lowest number since 2003, according to data from Thomson Reuters. And while the combined value of $542.8 billion outpaced last year’s first quarter by about 10 percent, it is still 26 percent below the level for the period in 2011.
Bankers and lawyers have been publicly boasting about a nascent revival in mergers. In March, 97 percent of deal makers surveyed by the Brunswick Group public relations firm said they expected more deals to be announced in North America this year than in last.
But privately, many have conceded that for all of the improvements in the economy and corporate profits, executives still lack the confidence to sign for a big deal.
“The M.& A. market remains uneven,” said Scott Lindsay, the global head of mergers and acquisitions at Credit Suisse. “There’s a little bit of everything going on right now. But you would think there would be more activity than there is.”
Still, as market indexes like the Dow Jones industrial average set highs, the number of mergers — which historically tracks closely with stock prices — should rise as well, he added. And many advisers caution against judging 2013 by one quarter. Some deals that would otherwise have been announced in the first quarter were moved to fourth quarter 2012 to avoid incurring potentially higher taxes, they said.
By some measures, the merger environment has continued to improve steadily. In the United States, the growth in activity nearly single-handedly lifted overall deal volume, with major deals like Dell’s planned sale to its founder and H. J. Heinz’s takeover by Berkshire Hathaway and 3G Capital. The value of transactions announced in the United States for the first quarter jumped nearly 89 percent from a year ago, to $269.8 billion. Other areas of the world have lagged behind, none more so than Europe. The Continent had just 2,705 deals, worth a total of $125.7 billion, in the quarter, down significantly from the period last year.
Bankers and lawyers regularly recite the litany of factors that should lead to a wellspring of deals: an improving economy; soaring stock markets; and record low interest rates, courtesy of the Federal Reserve, that make borrowing incredibly cheap. But other factors have weighed on executives’ confidence, including concerns about how events like the bailout of Cyprus may affect the European economy and how America’s budget problems might hamper its growth.
Some bankers and lawyers indicate that companies may finally be ready to look beyond the short-term crises, and focus on their specific needs for the long term. “A couple of years ago, something like Greece brought the M.& A. market to a halt,” said Sarkis Jebejian, a partner at Kirkland & Ellis. “I think the trend now is to ask, ‘Does this affect my deal?’ ”
In the first quarter, Goldman Sachs narrowly edged out JPMorgan Chase for the lead in Thomson Reuters’s financial league tables, having advised on 83 deals worth a total of $135.9 billion. Goldman’s transactions include advising Dell Inc. in its proposed takeover byMichael S. Dell and Virgin Media in its sale to Liberty Global.
Davis Polk & Wardwell claimed the top spot in the legal adviser rankings, having advised on 33 deals worth a total of nearly $109 billion. The firm’s biggest assignment this year was advising Comcast in buying full control of NBCUniversal from General Electric.