In just over a month, three of Minnesota’s largest businesses have been acquired by outside companies.
First it was Valspar, the paint company that in late March announced it would be acquired by Sherwin Williams. Then it was the Carlson hotels business, scooped up Wednesday by a Chinese conglomerate called HNA Tourism Group. And then Thursday, Abbott Laboratories, a Chicago-based company, said it will be acquiring St. Jude Medical.
The mergers have come on what appears to be the tail end of a national wave of deal making.
Three forces are at work. Interest rates are expected to rise over the next few years, which pushes buyers to lock in deals while financing is cheap. Second, the cycle itself forced some companies to conclude they can’t keep up with rivals who have already made deals, which leads them to become sellers. And then, there’s the fear that the next recession is closer than the last one.
“You’ve got an approaching storm for companies that are kind of plateaued or down,” said Peter Clark, a scholar of mergers at University College London.
Recession fear, in particular, fuels mergers and could fuel more in Minnesota. One potential target is General Mills, the giant food company whose revenue has been flat or slightly negative for three years.
The firm’s stock price, despite its operating performance, is up nearly 20 percent over the past 16 months. Big food has seen a wave of consolidation in recent years, and Clark said General Mills’ stock price is a sign investors believe an acquisition could happen.
“I’d suggest that there is a built-in anticipatory purchase premium already in General Mills’ price,” Clark said.
Mergers and acquisitions hit record levels nationally in 2015, but have slowed so far in 2016. The number of deals in Minnesota, according to Thomson Reuters, shot upward in 2015, to 410, and now is on pace for a similar 2016. In dollar terms, so far Minnesota has seen $46.1 billion in mergers and acquisitions. That compares to $61.1 billion in 2015 and $71 billion in 2015.
Consolidation of mature industries is the key to understanding both the Valspar and St. Jude acquisitions. Sherwin Williams will benefit from Valspar’s industrial, global and retail reach. Abbott Laboratories will gain an excellent foothold in heart-related medical devices because of St. Jude.
Especially with St. Jude, the impact on the local Twin Cities economy should be relatively small thanks to the strategic fit of the deal, said Myles Shaver, a professor of strategic management at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. Thomson Reuters’ huge presence in the Twin Cities even after the company acquired West Publishing is an example, he said, of a merger that didn’t deal a heavy blow to the region.
“In the St. Jude case, with respect to Abbott, since they really don’t overlap businesses, there’d be lots of reasons to suspect that lots of the activity here will remain here,” Shaver said.
The Carlson deal with HNA is different. Chinese firms are prowling the globe looking for places to invest. Many analysts believe capital is fleeing the world’s second-largest economy in search of safety, and overseas acquisitions are believed to be a solid investment as the Chinese economy slows.
Anbang, another Chinese conglomerate, bid up the price of the Starwood Hotels and Resorts chain in a battle with Marriott before dropping out earlier this month.
It’s estimated HNA has spent more than $14 billion on acquisitions outside China in the past year, with purchases including a Swiss caterer, an Irish aircraft leasing company, a Swiss aircraft services firm and a stake in a Brazilian airline. Analysts are skeptical of the business case for all this buying.
“If there are benefits to combining aircraft travel, in-flight meals and lodging under one corporate umbrella they have largely eluded Western rivals that operate in those industries,” said Peter Thal Larsen, in a note on the deal for Breakingviews, Reuters’ financial commentary service.
The Carlson hotels business will maintain its headquarters in Minnetonka.
There are natural pressures for such deals. Investment bankers whose business depends on fees for these big transactions are worried they won’t have any work a year from now, so they whisper in the ears of CEOs, warning them that consolidation is coming, said Clark, the London mergers scholar.
For executives at firms involved in these deals, a wave of mergers is like musical chairs. Nobody wants to be the last one standing when the music stops.
“There’s some strange emotional dynamics that can’t be discounted when you’re getting into the final phase,” Clark said.