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Peak performance: US M&A in 2018

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2018 was a strong year for dealmaking in the US, particularly domestically, but when will the tide turn?

US M&A weathers geopolitical storms

The political and economic backdrop may be unstable, but 2018 was a strong year for US M&A, especially domestically. However, a strong stock market cannot last forever, nor can a booming M&A market

US M&A enjoyed yet another busy 12 months in 2018. Deal value climbed by 15 percent and the domestic M&A market thrived. Overall domestic deal value was up 23 percent compared to 2017, and the ten largest deals of the year were all domestic transactions.

Steady economic growth, low unemployment and interest rates, and the billions of dollars released through the Trump tax cuts all boosted domestic dealmaking. In a survey of 200 M&A executives conducted for this report, more than three quarters see the US as the most attractive M&A market in 2019, and 80 percent expect the US economy to continue expanding over the next year.

But while there is plenty of reason to be optimistic, the positive deal and economic figures can obscure growing concerns that the cycle may be close to its peak. Stock markets have been more volatile this year and businesses are worried about the impact of the Trump administration’s actions.

More than half of respondents to the survey expressed their opposition to new laws that give the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) more powers to block inbound deals, and a third say they are worried about what escalating trade tensions between the US and China mean for their prospects. In what is supposed to be a strong seller’s market, the fact that close to a third of those we surveyed have suffered lapsed deals is further cause for caution.

As we go into 2019, there will be much for dealmakers to look forward to. Technology continues to transform the way businesses operate and will remain a reason to transact. The economy is still in good shape too, which will sustain confidence.

Dealmakers will not feel the need to sit on their hands just yet but will need to approach prospective deals with a degree of caution over the next 12 months to mitigate against the inevitable recession and stock market pullback.


Confidence, cash and tax cuts: The US M&A landscape in 2018

The US M&A market delivered another year of strong performance in 2018.

Private equity remains strong in 2018

Private equity buyout activity saw an increase in 2018, with volume rising 6 percent to 1,361 deals and value up 7 percent to US$214 billion.

US M&A survey: Deal drivers and dilemmas

We surveyed 200 executives on their views about the future of M&A and found that most remain optimistic about 2019

Sector watch

Sectors overview: Tech and energy top the charts

TMT and energy were the top two sectors by value; fintech is poised to invigorate dealmaking in the financial services sector.

Technology M&A value soars in 2018

After a period of frenetic dealmaking in technology over the last few years, which saw businesses across all industries scramble to adjust to the rapid shifts driven by digitalization, 2018 has seen value climb in the tech M&A sector

Consumer deals slip as digital disrupts

Digital disruption and its impact on physical retailers once again weighed on the consumer sector in 2018. Consumer M&A volume was down 13 percent year-on-year to 465 deals in 2018. Value decreased 28 percent to US$119 billion

Financial services deals are down, but 2019 brings hope

Financial services sector M&A volume decreased by 6 percent to 461 deals in 2018, with value decreasing 48 percent to US$80.2 billion. But there are signs that the sector’s M&A market is moving in the right direction going into 2019

Stability in early 2018 fuels oil and gas M&A

A stable oil price (for the majority of 2018) saw deal value climb in the energy, mining and utilities sector in 2018, despite volume falling

Real estate rises higher on megadeal surge

Real estate M&A value jumped 116 percent to US$74.9 billion in 2018, with deal volume staying flat at 46 deals

Next big thing drives healthcare M&A

Although deal volume and value in the pharma, medical and biotech sector fell in 2018, down by 3 percent to 580 deals and 27 percent to US$111.8 billion respectively, pharma companies have invested aggressively in strategic deals throughout the year

In Focus

Deal-changing decisions from Delaware

In the second half of 2018, the Delaware courts once again produced decisions that will guide M&A transactions in the future

Why, how and when should directors engage with shareholders?

Activism among investors is on the rise across the globe. Companies that empower directors to engage with shareholders can optimize investor relations, if they follow some simple but important guidelines


Four trends moving the US M&A needle in 2019

In 2018, the US M&A market has seen marked robust domestic activity and a strong tech sector but declining inbound dealmaking. We examine the four key factors that could characterize 2019

Meet our Partners

Global M&A Leaders

John Reiss

John Reiss
Partner, New York


Gregory Pryor

Gregory Pryor
Partner, New York


Allan Taylor

Darragh Byrne
Partner, Frankfurt, Stockholm


Allan Taylor

Allan Taylor
Partner, London


John Cunningham

John Cunningham
Partner, London


Alexandre Ippolito

Alexandre Ippolito
Partner, Paris


Christopher Kelly

Christopher Kelly
Partner, Hong Kong


 Barrye Wall

Barrye Wall
Partner, Singapore


New York City

US M&A survey: Deal drivers and dilemmas

We surveyed 200 executives on their views about the future of M&A and found that most remain optimistic about 2019

9 min read

When asked which country is most attractive to acquire companies from over the next 12 months, 77 percent chose the US, up from 67 percent last year.

On the one hand, the US economy has grown steadily, unemployment is down, interest rates remain low and the Trump administration’s tax cuts have given businesses across the board a material cash boost. Domestic deal activity has benefited, with value climbing 23 percent year-on-year in 2018.

Yet, as strong as the economic fundamentals appear, volatile stock markets, an escalating tariff war and a tougher regime for screening inbound investors have given dealmakers pause.

Although the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 both hit record highs in 2018, they have also suffered some of their biggest one-day falls since the financial crisis. Inbound deal value, meanwhile, has dropped by 10 percent. New powers granted to CFIUS, which could make it tougher for foreign entities to invest in certain industries, and the Trump administration’s imposition of tariffs on steel, aluminum and various Chinese imports have all weighed on investment into the US from abroad.

White & Case surveyed 200 US dealmakers to gauge how they assess the key deal drivers and dilemmas facing investors at this time.


Deal drivers

Domestic bliss

Domestic bliss Dealmakers are upbeat about prospects for domestic dealmaking. They see positive economic signs on the horizon and, in the main, believe the economy will keep on growing.

When asked from which country it is the most attractive to acquire companies over the next 12 months, 77 percent chose the US, up from 67 percent last year. Only 6 percent say entering a new geography is the key driver for M&A.

"The US market has returned to growth and the level of uncertainty is minimal—apart from Trump’s policies,” says the chief financial officer of a US business services company. “The outlook for future economic growth looks stable, and we prefer to grow in our core domestic market. We see no value in venturing into foreign markets at this time." 


Percentage of respondents who predict moderate growth in US GDP in 2019

The reason most commonly cited for their country choice was positive economic indicators. When asked about what will happen to US GDP in 2019 compared to 2018, 80 percent predicted moderate growth, 20 percent said there will be no change, and no respondents predicted a slowdown. When asked about the rate of growth in 2020 compared to the rate of growth in 2018, 17 percent say 2020 will see rapid growth, 76 percent say moderate growth and just 7 percent say there will be no change. Again, no one predicted a slowdown.

Despite the solid performance of the US economy over the last year, it is somewhat surprising that respondents weren’t more concerned that the economic cycle could be peaking. Although large strategic buyers are flush with cash and eager to deploy it into acquisitions, there is growing concern among them that there may be a downturn in the near future.

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Taxing times

The lower corporate tax rate has allowed companies to retain more earnings, which they have been able to deploy into acquisitions.

The Trump administration’s tax reforms have been welcomed by M&A practitioners, with dealmakers saying that the tax changes have increased their confidence to pursue M&A.

The lower corporate tax rate has allowed companies to retain more earnings, which they have been able to deploy into acquisitions. The immediate deductibility of certain hard assets included in transactions has made M&A even more attractive for some companies.

Almost all of the respondents (94 percent) say the reduction in the rate of corporation tax from 35 percent to 21 percent has increased their company’s appetite for M&A, with 38 percent saying the tax breaks have significantly increased deal appetite.

When it comes to the introduction of a one-off tax on all repatriated non-US earnings, some 37 percent say this has increased their appetite for M&A, while 50 percent say it has had no impact and 13 percent say it decreased their appetite. Interestingly, 5 percent see tax savings as the primary driver for M&A activity. Although these respondents represent only a small proportion of those polled, they do illustrate the extent to which the Trump tax cuts have freed up capital for deals.

"Low tax rates will have a significant positive impact on the overall economy and we will see growth in new investment, employment and wages. Positive sentiments in the market give us confidence to execute our acquisition plans," an executive vice president at a TMT business says.

The tax cuts put more money into the economy and may have helped boost stock market valuations. Yet, their effect on M&A may be more limited. The lower rates are unlikely to have made a dramatic impact on valuations in M&A—the market was already operating in a competitive market with high multiples, even before the cuts came into effect.

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Tech and IP are prized

Technology and IP are cited as the main reasons for pursuing a deal, and are expected to remain major drivers for dealmaking over the next 12 months. A quarter of respondents see it as their key deal driver—the same proportion as in last year’s survey.

"As long as new technologies continue to disrupt entire markets, acquiring new technology and expertise will be a top reason for us to engage in acquisitions so that we can defend our market position and stay ahead of the curve," says acorporate development director at a TMT company.

Revenue synergies and diversifying products or services were the next most popular deal drivers, each polling at 20 percent.

"If we are to meet the new product demands of customers, we can’t only rely on internal or organic development of new products. Developing new products is time consuming and not always suitable in the current competitive market," says the head of corporate development at a consumer company.


A key to growth

When asked how much M&A has driven average annual growth in the previous three years, 66 percent say it has driven 3 to 4 percent growth.

The positive sentiment towards M&A that emerged in the survey can also be explained by the fact that all respondents have seen the benefits of deals done in recent years.

When asked how much M&A has driven average annual growth in the previous three years, 32 percent say it has driven 1 to 2 percent of growth (compared to 38 percent of respondents in last year’s survey); 66 percent say it has driven growth of 3 to 4 percent (compared to 51 percent who said this last year); and 2 percent put the total at 5 percent or more (down from 7 percent in last year’s survey). No respondents say M&A has had a negative impact on growth or that it has not driven growth at all.

More than half (53 percent), meanwhile, say average annual growth was on-target, with 10 percent saying it was above target and 37 percent saying it was below target.

Although the outlook is less certain, the fundamentals remain the same. The reasons for undertaking M&A—to grow, to expand your customer base and geography and to increase more intellectual capital—continue to drive deal activity.

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M&A activity over the next 12 months
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Deal dilemmas

Tariff troubles

Although a majority of respondents say more tariffs on China will have no impact on their businesses, more than a third say an escalating tariff war could cause a downturn in the market.

Of those surveyed, 66 percent say tariffs would have no effect on their company’s appetite for M&A, but 34 percent say it would decrease their appetite.

"Considering the hardline approach of Trump, we were expecting the new tariffs, so we had prepared our business already. We had to be proactive, as we could have faced supply and operational issues. These are political and business scenarios we always prepare for. I don’t think we will restrict our strategic activities because of the tariffs," an executive at a US consumer business says.

For any decent-sized cross-border transaction, the future of trade relations will have significant consequences. However, for middle-market transactions, the increases in tariffs will not have as much of an impact.

M&A driven average annual growth
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CFIUS issues

Even though two-thirds of respondents were unconcerned with the imposition of tariffs, more than half of those surveyed disagreed (52 percent) with legislative changes that expand the jurisdiction of CFIUS, which can block inbound M&A on national security grounds.

The expansion of CFIUS’s jurisdiction puts it at the forefront of any regulatory issues dealmakers need to address when handling cross-border transaction involving a target company based in the US.

 "Foreign companies face so many regulatory restrictions and if CFIUS’s jurisdiction is expanded, foreign companies will have another reason to worry about looking to the US for acquisitions. If the market is to grow continuously, there should be greater international cooperation," a senior vice president of corporate development at a consumer company says.

Just under a quarter of respondents (24 percent), however, believe the extended powers are necessary, while 24 percent neither agree nor disagree.

"I think it is required to safeguard the interest of American businesses and keep the credibility of our domestic market," a finance director at a financial services group says. "I would want CFIUS to have the powers it needs to block all those investments it thinks are a concern and can harm the harmony of our market."

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Lapsed deals

Aside from CFIUS, the other major concern expressed by respondents in the survey is the high volume of lapsed deals.


Percentage of respondents who say a deal they have worked on in the past two years has lapsed

There have been a number of high-profile lapsed deals in 2018, reflecting the concerns of survey respondents. President Trump blocked then-Singapore-based semiconductor firm Broadcom’s hostile bid for US peer Qualcomm on national security grounds, and Qualcomm abandoned its bid for NXP Semiconductors after the deal was blocked by Chinese regulators.

Twenty-eight percent of respondents said a deal they have worked on in the past two years has lapsed. Among those respondents, 89 percent say factors uncovered during due diligence caused the deal to fail and 68 percent say changes in market conditions played a role, while 44 percent cited antitrust regulatory issues.

The findings mirror those of a similar survey of 150 technology executives by White & Case, who also cited antitrust and issues uncovered in due diligence as the main causes of failed deals.

While 2018 has been an active year for M&A, buyers are acting carefully, and the increased volatility means that both sides of a transaction may find it difficult to feel confident that they are doing a deal at the right time and for the right price.

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