With the tech IPO market still rolling in the gutter, tech companies looking for exits have begun to shift their focus toward being acquired.
There has been a wave of big deals this quarter that seems to indicate a lot of activity around M&A. But to get a better sense of what’s really going on, I talked recently with Todson Page, technology deals leader at PwC U.S.
PwC puts out one of the most closely watched quarterly reports on M&A. The report for the second quarter of 2016 showed decent activity, though it was hardly sizzling. Total deal volume was $82.9 billion, down about 3 percent from a year ago. Totals deals were 414, down 19 percent.
Still, this is far better than what we saw with the IPO market. Through the end of August this year, only nine technology companies had gone public, according to Renaissance Capital. That’s the lowest number since 2008. If all goes well, Renaissance estimates there could be a slight pickup of 10-12 tech IPOs over the last four months of 2016.
Against that low bar, M&A continues to look good just by standing its ground.
“In terms of the momentum, is it what we were expecting?” Page asked. “It’s definitely meeting what we thought tech M&A would be for 2016.”
In the third quarter of 2015, there were 468 deals for $54.2 billion, a pace that this quarter should match. The next quarter will be a tougher comparison, because in 2015, deals surged to $134 billion on 422 acquisitions.
But within these macro numbers, there are some important trends that Page said could influence the amount of M&A activity in the coming months.
An often-overlooked aspect of M&A is the amount of divestment activity that occurs when big tech giants are looking to shed weight or shuffle pieces around.
During the first six months of 2016, the amount of divestiture-related deals had almost doubled compared to the same period the previous year, according to PwC data.
Over time, of course, this could make for new efficiencies and opportunities. But it doesn’t necessarily help startup investors who are hoping to see exits and returns. In fact, divestments add to the pool of potential deals and can inflate the overall numbers. At the same time, it’s a sign that some out there are opening their wallets.
We’ve seen some headline-grabbing divestment deals recently, such as when Hewlett Packard Enterprise announced it would sell its software business to Britain’s Micro Focus International for $8.8 billion. Meanwhile, HP (the consumer company created when HP split in two last year) said it would buy Samsung’s printer division for $1.08 billion. And Open Text said this week that it would pay $1.62 billion for the enterprise content division of Dell and EMC following their merger.
Awakening tech giants
Even though 2015 was a good year for M&A, Page noted that many of the very largest tech companies dialed down their acquisitions. Faced with runaway unicorn valuations, many opted to sit on the sidelines or target smaller deals.
With IPOs dead, and more startup companies raising down rounds or seeing their stock come under pressure, there are signs that some big tech players are jumping back in.
The most notable such deal this year, of course, is Microsoft’s $26 billion bid for LinkedIn. But just this month, Google said it was buying API startup Apigee for $625 million. Earlier this quarter. Oracle said it was buying NetSuite for $9.3 billion. And Cisco Systems announced a deal for ContainerX back in August.
The floodgates have not exactly opened wide, Page said. But if valuations keep falling, it will be interesting to see if that entices more bids from the tech giants.
Perhaps the best news for those seeking exits is that more companies outside the realm of traditional tech are lurking around looking for tech-buying opportunities, Page said.
In this quarter, the biggest example was Walmart’s $3 billion purchase of ecommerce startup Jet.com. Back in July, Unilever acquired Dollar Shave Club for $1 billion. And this month, Ford announced it was buying crowdsourced shuttle company Chariot.
Going back further this year, GM acquired self-driving car startup Cruise for more than $1 billion, bought the assets of ride-hailing startup Sidecar for an undisclosed sum, and reportedly made overtures to buy Lyft.
Page noted that these non-tech companies are motivated by the fact that the world is changing rapidly, and investing in-house isn’t always enough to keep up. This has many such companies looking in the direction of startups.
If that continues, it could be the salvation of many startups who are worried about hitting a wall in the coming year.