Dealmakers to miss $4 trillion mark for first time in 10 years

NEW YORK – Dealmakers are coming to the end of their worst year for mergers and acquisitions (M&A) in a decade, having seen hopes of any meaningful recovery choked off by reluctant lenders and geopolitical flare-ups.

The value of M&A and related transactions globally is down roughly a quarter in 2023 to US$2.7 trillion (S$3.6 trillion) going into the holiday period, data compiled by Bloomberg show. That is the lowest annual total since 2013, which was also the last time deal values failed to hit US$3 trillion (S$4 trillion) in a calendar year, the data show.

The slump leaves investment bankers facing a bleak bonus season and more job cuts if things don’t improve in 2024. And with interest rates and geopolitical tensions still running high, challenges to dealmaking remain, according to Mr Jay Hofmann, co-head of M&A for North America at JPMorgan Chase & Co, who likened current conditions to those experienced during the dot-com crash in 2001.

“It has just been a lot harder to get things done this year and people have looked for reasons not to do deals. I don’t really see that changing very much right now,” Mr Hofmann said. “People aren’t inclined to look past challenging issues to get deals through.”

A lack of activity by private equity firms has again been one of the major drags on deal-flow in 2023. Buyout firms have spent 36 per cent less on acquisitions in 2023, compared with 2022, amid struggles in securing debt financing for big deals and price disagreements with sellers – even when offering hefty premiums.

While some major transactions, including KKR & Co’s long-trailed acquisition of Telecom Italia for more than US$20 billion and GTCR’s purchase of a US$11.7 billion majority stake in payments firm Worldpay, have been announced, plenty of others have either stalled or run into hesitant sellers.

“Private equity activity will pick up meaningfully once we have more alignment between buyers and sellers on valuation. That is starting to happen now, but we think it will take another six months or so,” said Mr Majid Ishaq, co-head of Britain at Rothschild & Co. “Buyout firms continue to look at take-private opportunities, but they are difficult deals to execute, notwithstanding public market valuations having fallen, given that debt has become more expensive.”

Misplaced optimism

There had been optimism about M&A moving into the final quarter of the year, on indications that markets were pricing in the end to rate-hiking cycles and banks were becoming more comfortable backing large buyouts. There was also a flurry of major deals across natural resources and health care, including the year’s two biggest transactions: Exxon Mobil’s near US$60 billion purchase of Pioneer Natural Resources and Chevron’s acquisition of Hess for US$53 billion.

But fresh uncertainty stemming from the war between Israel and Hamas dampened some of this new-found enthusiasm for dealmaking.

“I felt differently about the market every few weeks,” said Mr William Aaronson, M&A partner at law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell in New York. “A flurry of new deals did not always result in a ramp-up of sustained activity, and processes tended to be more erratic.”

“Unlike the go-go market of 2021, there’s not a great deal of Fomo (fear of missing out) among buyers,” said Mr John Collins, global head of M&A at Morgan Stanley. “Many buyers feel like they have a bit more time and are prepared to wait it out for things to stabilise further.”

How long they will have to wait for that stability will depend in no small part on the decisions of central bankers and the voting public in 2024.

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