Chris Blackhurst: Money-men are sitting on their hands – where are all the deals?

Midweek View: In the febrile atmosphere engulfing us CEOs would rather do nothing than risk public opprobrium
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The Independent Online

Where have all the mega-deals gone? Not so long ago, there were agreed bids galore and the occasional hostile one, to whet the appetite – and to keep the City advisers' fees turning.

We're now living through a period of prolonged drought, so much so that one very senior financial PR chief was overheard recently describing his agency, which grew up entirely on the back of M&A, as a firm specialising in "crisis management". I found it hard not to laugh at the thought of the smooth Henrys and Poppys on his workforce suddenly having to acquaint themselves with the murky practices of the tabloids, and the tricky task of repairing the damaged reputations of captains of industry.

But needs must. He was having to change the pitch of his business in order to survive – if he stuck to the original reliance on takeovers it would surely die.

That move is being repeated all over the City. Apart from Vodafone, the cupboard is bare of the big-ticket stuff, the ones with the numbers that really set pulses racing.

It's easy to understand the corporate psyche, that ever since Lehman went down five years ago, we've been living through a period of pronounced depression, uncertainty and volatility. It would be foolhardy in these conditions to make massive plays. After all, one of the last CEOs to flex some muscle before the crash was Fred Goodwin at Royal Bank of Scotland, fighting to buy ABN Amro, and look what happened to him.

The euro crisis is far from over, just having a holiday while diplomatic and political attentions are focused on Syria; and nobody knows what effect an American missile strike would have on the region, the world and therefore on the markets.

No, it would be crazy in this climate to commit to heavy spending and leveraging. It's not just deal making that is suffering. Companies are holding back from investing organically as well. There are signs of economic recovery, yet so far there have been few announcements about individual development and expansion plans.

It's not as if there is a shortage of funds. Analysis by Capita Asset Services suggests that the amount of cash held on balance sheets by the UK's largest companies by stock market value has reached an all-time high of £166bn – gross cash balances for the FTSE 100 have risen from £123.8bn in 2008.

Is there more to this than meets the eye? What's especially telling is that corporate treasurers are even unwilling to buy government bonds. That has to say something about their lack of faith in the robustness of the UK – that despite the appearance of green shoots, the economic outlook remains distinctly fragile. It also provides evidence that quantitative easing has failed. If they believed in QE's ability to supply a lasting stimulus, they would have bought bonds. As it is, they've sat on their hands.

Those corporates, make no mistake, are also increasingly fed-up. There is a growing sense of frustration at the ease with which other companies, those based offshore, are able to operate relatively free of restrictions, without penalty of tax.

Simply, they can't compete on the same terms. Unless it is a copper bottomed agreed deal, they are afraid of finding that if they break cover with any announcement, a bigger, more flexible third party will pounce.

You saw it with the Vodafone sale of its Verizon stake. No sooner was the plan disclosed than politicians were complaining loudly that Vodafone was avoiding paying tax on its £84bn proceeds.

In the febrile atmosphere currently engulfing us, chairmen, CEOs and boards do not need this sort of controversy. They would rather not do anything at all than risk public opprobrium.

But apparently the Treasury is not content to let them do nothing. The inactivity and the rising mountain of cash have led to talk of a "win- win" in Whitehall. The Government could threaten to tax the pile as a windfall tax. It's in desperate need of the money, so company cash balances could be regarded as a legitimate target.

That's one win. The second is the effect the prospect of such a tax might have on the companies. It could force them to get off the fence and spend, which may be good for the economy.

I have my doubts. My bet is that they would look to take their cash offshore or mask it via some skilful financial engineering. Companies don't like being told what to do any more than they like paying tax.

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