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Europe’s mergers and acquisitions market heats up

A flurry of new deals have been announced in the past month alone, including Numericable’s purchase of Vivendi’s SFR mobile phone unit in France, the merger of Swiss cement group Holcim and French rival Lafarge and the tie-up of Sopra and Steria to create a new French technology services giant.

British companies have also been on the move, with mobile phone giant Vodafone launching a EUR 7.2-billion purchase of Spanish cable operator Ono and private equity firm CVC capital taking a controlling stake in Spanish olive oil producer Deoleo.

And German private equity group Triton bought French engineering giant Alstom’s boiler and heat transfer equipment unit for EUR 730 million (USD 1 billion).

"Activity has been gathering pace since the start of the year, globally, in Europe and now in France. The first quarter was very strong in terms of announcements," said Fabien Laurenceau, a strategist equity analysis at Aurel BGC.

Worldwide, the value of deals announced in the first three months of the year jumped 26 percent to USD 637 billion compared to 2013, the best start to the year since 2007, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Two of the world’s biggest investment banks Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley this week reported better-than-expected first-quarter results, buoyed by a rebound of profits in their M&A advisory arms.

The rise in deals has been driven, in part, by the huge war chest of ready money built up by companies during the global financial crisis which erupted in 2008.

Consultancy Deloitte in January estimated that the world’s top 1,000 firms had accumulated about USD 2.8 trillion of cash on their balance sheets as they waited out the storm in financial markets.

A KPMG survey of over 1,000 dealmakers earlier this year found that almost two-thirds were expecting to launch bids during 2014, mainly because of the size of their reserves.

Of that, 29 percent of respondents believe that western Europe will have the most active mergers and acquisitions market worldwide this year the same amount as in China.

"The European debt crisis is creating many opportunities," said KPMG managing director Phil Isom in the report.

Rising equity market valuations have also given bosses of stable companies more opportunities to take on debt and pounce on weaker rivals, according to Laurenceau.

‘More fertile ground’

"Already, the confidence of senior business leaders shows that the major economic risks are behind us, that we are no longer in a period of intense stress. There’s a feeling that things have started to improve in the past few months," he told AFP.

"A company needs a strong valuation itself to be able to pay off debt."

Conversely, historically low interest rates have also made consolidation seem more attractive at a time when the economic outlook in some sectors is still uncertain.

Difficult market conditions were key drivers in both Numericable’s bid for SFR in the face of new competition from new rival Free, and Lafarge’s decision to merge with Holcim after several restructurings.

"One sees more large-scale operations because the environment isn’t what it was, so (companies) are coming together to become stronger," said Isabelle Enos, deputy director of management at B*Capital, a subsidiary of BNP Paribas.

Some commentators fear, however, that the surge in activity at the start of the year could be a false start.

The flurry of deals that followed PR giant Publicis announcement of its merger with US’s Omnicom last year including Schneider’s agreement to buy Britain’s Invensys, LVMH’s purchase of Italian cashmere clothier Loro Piana and Essilor’s buyout of its Transitions Optical venture was as impressive as it was brief.

But Laurenceau argued that fact that companies are choosing mergers and acquisitions over equity raisings shows the strength of confidence in the market.

"The cycle is usually like this: when the markets recover first there are IPOs, then friendly deals and mergers, and the ultimate is the hostile takeover," he said.

"There is a more fertile ground than last year."


Marc Preel / AFP / Expatica