CryptocurrencyInvestingBanksReal Estate

M&A is showing signs of life in the healthiest and least healthy sectors

May 21, 2020, 11:00 AM UTC

After coming nearly to a halt amid the coronavirus—deal volumes fell 72% in April alone, compared with a month earlier, according to Refinitiv—the mergers and acquisitions market may be starting to show some early signs of life.

“Dealmaking came to a complete standstill, but now you are beginning to see activity,” says Anu Aiyengar, cohead of global mergers and acquisitions at JPMorgan Chase. “There was almost a time when you saw the mood shift. If you think things are about to resolve, you wait. But if you think things are going to be murky for a period of time, and you are a well-capitalized company, this dislocation may give you an opportunity to be strategic.”

But look closely: Experts say that deals aren’t coming back everywhere. Instead there’s an interesting dichotomy: deals at the top—and bottom—of the food chain. Dusty Philip, cohead of global M&A at Goldman Sachs, expects to see deals in the healthiest of sectors—think tech and health care—and the least viable sectors, like energy. In healthy sectors, M&A will strive for growth, while in the latter, it’s all about survival.

Liberty Global and Telefonica SA, for instance, agreed to merge their U.K. telecommunications businesses in early May through a $39 billion deal that represented the biggest tie-up during the pandemic to date. Demand for the telecom sector is expected to grow in the middle of a global lockdown, putting it in a healthier position than others.

In a similar vein, as executives rely solely on technology to communicate with their teams, companies are finding an appetite for buying up tech to aid their operations, says Philip. “The strategic priorities of many of our clients have changed to reflect the current environment,” he says. “As technology changes and the ESG movement has come to the forefront, we see clients thinking in this way about acquisition targets and about what assets are important to them in achieving their environmental targets over time—and that’s impacting how people add and subtract from their portfolio.”

For example, big industrial businesses are looking to acquire software firms, he says, as the coronavirus pandemic pushes companies to accelerate tech upgrades.

Beyond well-capitalized companies, Aiyengar is also expecting acquisitions of venture-backed tech companies that may have been on a path to an IPO. The coronavirus has certainly made it more difficult to list publicly—meaning some venture capitalists may have to grapple with whether to continue to pour millions into a maturing startup, or give up dreams of a stand-alone company and potentially sell it off to an acquirer.

Smaller deals, lower prices

“The second half of the year is going to be busier, but I think it is likely that is going to be more smaller deals, not transformative ones,” says Morgan Stanley global head of M&A Robert Kindler. “One area to also consider is regulatory scrutiny of transactions.”

Regulators have clamored at cross-border transactions and worried about large companies getting ever larger through acquisitions during the pandemic. In late April, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) proposed new legislation halting “risky” megadeals by those with over $100 million in revenue, presumably with an eye on big tech. While few are expecting the measure to gain traction, it signaled to investors that M&A could fall under greater scrutiny during the crisis.

“While there certainly will be some large deals, they will mostly be in the $2 [billion] to $5 billion range,” Kindler estimates. “I think there are going to be a lot of sellers that lower their price expectations not only because they are worried about a reoccurrence, but also because there is uncertainty about if this market is too high.”

Private equity

But one thing bankers can agree on: Private equity will play a more active role.

Because of a now famous $1.5 trillion pile of cash private equity has amassed waiting for less frothy markets, many expect to see deals take off in 2020. Already this year, Silver Lake and Sixth Street Partners invested some $1 billion in the form of debt and stock in home-sharing platform Airbnb. More recently, KKR took a majority stake in Coty’s professional beauty and retail hair care businesses.

Able to move more quickly and structure deals creatively compared with corporate acquirers, private equity firms have a distinct advantage in a battered market. In the case of the Coty-KKR tie-up, for instance, KKR acquired a partial 60% stake in the Coty businesses rather than buying the company outright. Goldman’s Philip is expecting more partial acquisitions or stock-for-stock deals, as both buyers and sellers seek to benefit from when the valuation rebounds on the other side of the coronavirus pandemic.

That said, things could turn yet again, and, as we’ve seen, markets can sour rapidly—which may be a boon for private equity investors hoping for even lower valuations, but not so beneficial for companies that need to have stronger balance sheets for an acquisition.

“We are seeing transactions come back to life behind the scenes,” says Michael Carr, cohead of global M&A at Goldman Sachs. “We have a fair bit of optimism, but this stuff can change quickly.”