New heights: US M&A H1 2021
US M&A set a new record for value in H1 2021—and nearly surpassed the full-year figure for 2020
US M&A surged to record levels in the face of pandemic-related challenges and potentially dramatic regulatory shifts
We are just heading into August, but it is already safe to say that 2021 is a historic year for US M&A. Deal value rose to a new high of US$1.27 trillion in H1 2021. This was a 324 percent increase compared to H1 2020—and was virtually equivalent to the total value recorded in all of 2020.
This torrent of deals was the result of a perfect storm of activity on the part of strategic, PE and SPAC dealmakers. The pandemic drove many corporates to offload non-core divisions and acquire digital capabilities. Corporates that thrived during the pandemic used M&A to consolidate gains. PE firms strove to deploy their massive troves of dry powder. And SPACs searched for opportunities to invest the record levels of funds they raised.
The election of Joe Biden as President significantly reduced political uncertainty that may have dampened activity in 2020 and this spurred dealmaking in 2021. However, the administration's policies could also complicate dealmaking.
The Biden Administration is taking vigorous steps to reshape antitrust policies and practices in the US. In July, the President issued an Executive Order to promote competition and lower prices throughout the economy through increased antitrust enforcement. These efforts are likely to intensify during the run-up to the US midterm elections in November 2022. The effects were already visible in the recent decision by Aon and Willis Towers Watson to call off their merger, which they first announced in March 2020. The deal would have created the world's largest insurance broker, but the Department of Justice opposed the deal on the grounds that it would eliminate competition, reduce innovation and lead to higher prices.
CFIUS has shown that it will mostly continue with the more aggressive approach to evaluating deals for national security concerns that was established by the previous administration. And with the appointment of Gary Gensler as Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the administration signaled it will take a more aggressive approach to securities law enforcement.
There are a number of other looming risks as well. The possibility of rising inflation and the end of government support measures related to the pandemic could shock the market. And dealmakers are concerned about potentially frothy valuations.
But perhaps the greatest variable remains the uncertain trajectory of the pandemic. Though the US was on a course of increasing optimism as vaccines were rolled out, recent concerns about the Delta variant of COVID-19 have raised questions—and exacerbated political divisions—about how quickly economies should open up.
Despite these challenges, the outlook for dealmaking remains very positive. US GDP forecasts are upbeat, stock markets are at historic highs, and interests remain low. Moreover, the Biden Administration's economic stimulus efforts and ambitious plans for energy transition and infrastructure development will inject large sums of capital into the economy. We expect US M&A to remain very active in the second half of 2021.