Asia's rising powers flex their muscles

Asia's growing confidence is reflected in a rise in the region's share of global mergers and acquisitions. Sean Farrell reports

As Britain and other European nations slash public spending and fears persist that the US will slip back into recession, the world is looking to the ascendant economic powers of Asia to keep the global economy afloat.

If any proof were needed of Asia's swagger, a case of 2009 Chateau Lafite sold for a staggering £43,000 to a buyer in the region yesterday.

Asia's growing confidence and influence is not just reflected in its economies' stellar growth rates and thirst for the best booze. The Asia-Pacific region, which includes Australia and New Zealand, is also increasingly driving the global market for mergers and acquisitions.

The most recent big deal highlighted the region's growing importance. The Singapore Stock Exchange agreed on Monday to pay more than £5bn to acquire Australia ASX to form Asia-Pacific's fourth-biggest bourse, rivalling the big three exchanges of Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

In the third quarter of this year, M&A volumes involving a target company in the Asia-Pacific region hit $152.5bn (£95bn) and its share of global deals touched a new high of 22 per cent, figures from Thomson Reuters show.

Activity by Asia-Pacific buyers has risen as a share of global deals since 2005 – when their share was typically in single-digit percentages. It averaged 17 per cent over the past four quarters and has hit a record 21 per cent in the current quarter.

Jennifer Coldwell, an analyst at Thomson Reuters, says: "With $333bn worth of activity so far this year, Asian acquirers make up over 17 per cent of total M&A, up from 16 per cent last year and up from 7 per cent in 2000."

The strength of M&A in Asia is set to continue as the region's companies use their firepower to seek opportunities close to home and in the West, and companies in developed countries again seek to tap in to growth markets.

A survey for Clifford Chance, the global law firm, and FinanceAsia magazine shows that deal advisers expect to be kept busy in Asia for some time to come. More than 70 per cent of decision makers surveyed expected cross-border deals by Asia-Pacific buyers to increase over the next 12 to 18 months.

Roger Denny, Clifford Chance's head of M&A for Asia, says: "There has been a pick-up in M&A activity globally, and in Asia without doubt there is a very strong focus on M&A activity."

China has been the main driver of activity as the region's giant industrial producer has sought out the raw materials it needs to keep its factories humming. Asia's powerhouse accounted for nearly two-thirds of $10.6bn (£6.6bn) of mining deals in Australia last year and has also been on the hunt for oil and other commodities in Africa.

But activity has stretched to other sectors in the region's diversifying economies. Mr Denny says: "We are also seeing a reasonable amount of activity in the financial services sector. That is driven by financial institutions reassessing their strategy and sometimes making strategic exits.

"Some are reacting to the Volcker rule [separating trading from retail banking] and are looking to sell off their proprietary desks. We've seen hedge funds looking to move to Asia and other companies looking to spin-off operations."

Consumer goods and retail companies are also popular targets because of the rise in the number of Asian consumers – combined with attractive valuations.

The Clifford Chance survey found that potential Asian buyers thought the West's economic troubles had created an opportunity to acquire businesses in Europe and the US but they are also cautious about buying into stagnant economies. Shares in the London Stock Exchange jumped after the Singapore-Australia deal was announced but some analysts cautioned that the new bourse would be wary of buying into low-growth developed markets.

Mr Denny says Asian businesses are likely to be highly selective in the deals they do in the West rather than use their financial muscle to go on a splurge. The main outbound deals are likely to be in natural resources, financial institutions tracking increased trade and corporate activity by their clients, and companies buying well-known brands to import back to Asia and use as an international springboard for expansion.

Attention tends to focus on China as a source of deals. More than 60 per cent of respondents named China as home to the most buyers and investors and 85 per cent said it would be in the top three.

Other countries have also caught the attention of investors. Indonesia has leapt from nowhere to become the fourth-most popular target nation in the survey as buyers have latched on to its big economy, good growth rates and desirable consumer industries. Vietnam is also on deal makers' radars after opening its markets following false starts that left buyers frustrated in the past.

Many markets in the region are still more protective of their big companies than the open UK economy and there have been some big deal failures to keep buyers' feet on the ground.

As well as Prudential's aborted takeover of AIA, Taiwanese authorities blocked the sale of Nan Shan Life Insurance to a consortium led by Primus Capital that was backed by mainland Chinese cash. The Australian competition watchdog also vetoed National Australia Bank's attempt to buy Axa's Asian business.

Mr Denny says: "There is increasing focus on regulatory clearances, whether it is in a regulated industry like financial services or on antitrust grounds. Sellers are asking buyers for information about the likely success of clearing these hurdles."

Even so, deal makers are still banking on the world's new economic engine for excuses to crack open their very best claret.

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