Burst of merger activity ahead

MERGERS and acquisitions are back in fashion in Britain. After only a trickle of deals during the recession, top City corporate finance departments now expect a sustained upturn in activity.

A burst of deals are due to move from the pending tray to the public arena in the next few weeks. Favoured targets include United Biscuits, Fisons, Cadbury Schweppes and Vickers.

Corporate financiers say the deals will be more international than those of the 1980s, featuring cross-border bidders from the US and continental Europe.

Stephen Latner, deputy chairman of SG Warburg, said: 'I think we are on the brink of witnessing a larger volume of merger and acquisition activity.'

This follows a fortnight that has seen two large bids. Enterprise Oil's pounds 1.4bn offer for Lasmo last week was the biggest hostile UK takeover bid since 1989.

It followed Lloyds' pounds 1.8bn agreed bid for Cheltenham & Gloucester Building Society.

David Barclay, deputy managing director of corporate finance at NatWest Markets, said: 'I think that people are beginning to flex their muscles and get a bit bolder. But bids are most likely to be agreed, because managements are looking over their shoulders at companies that last made hostile bids and bit off more than they could chew.'

The recent setback in the equity market has whetted appetites, as market capitalisations have fallen and made companies look better value.

But no one predicts that merger and acquisition activity will return to the heady heights of the late 1980s.

John Standen, chief executive, corporate finance at BZW, said: 'I think that the market has changed since the 1980s. Companies are much more professional about how they approach mergers and acquisitions.

'They are keener on approaching opportunities for their core businesses. It is a far more focused approach. Also, they are more international in their outlook.'

(Graph omitted)

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