Martin Flanagan: EU upheaval weighs on takeover deals

There has been much evidence that UK businesses have put investment on hold following the landscape-shifting Brexit vote.

Martin Flanagan says the resignation of Italian premier Matteo Renzi will do little to improve the landscape for M&A deals. Picture: Gregorio Borgia/AP

But that has now been mirrored in the latest data for acquisition activity as well, showing a distinct slowdown since that historic decision. One suspects that the latest seismic event throwing prime minister Matteo Renzi out of office in Italy will do nothing to reverse this new caution.

Political stability is always a desirable backdrop for a major acquisitive move, usually secondary to the commercial arithmetic but an important corporate comfort blanket, nevertheless.

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Latest data from the Office for National Statistics shows that UK merger and acquisition (M&A) activity nearly halved between July and September, with 140 deals worth £1 million or more – against 278 in the three months leading up to the UK’s European Union referendum.

M&A by overseas businesses for UK companies fell more than 40 per cent to 41 in Q3 from 71 between April and June. These figures are too stark to be purely coincidence.

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As one leading UK business figure told me during the summer, following Brexit the very least likely to happen was that UK and foreign businesses would “scratch their heads” before embarking on strategic acquisitions.

An interesting fact is that the value of acquisitions has gone up in Q3 even if the number has fallen. For instance, Japanese firm SoftBank bid a stonking £24 billion to take over Arm Holdings, the UK microchip designer for Apple.

The value of deals in the third quarter was £34bn, up from £33.1bn in the previous three months. What does this tell us? Probably that most companies, particular the minnows and mid-ranking, have been chastened in their M&A ambitions by Brexit. But the big boys with the big pockets have been readier to look above and beyond Brexit to the wider strategic horizon in their purchases.

Even so, the populist anti-elite earthquake that is happening on the bigger political stage has gained significant momentum and I think it will now lead even the biggest players to lower their sights on deals in the UK and Europe.

We are in cataclysmic times. An overly acquisitive CEO may currently be seen not as a visionary, but as not plugged in.