Tech companies have long, long shopping lists

Contact: Brenon Daly

Despite a lackluster year for tech M&A in 2017, corporate acquirers overwhelmingly forecast that their companies will be looking to shop again this year. More than six out of 10 (62%) respondents to the annual 451 Research Tech Corporate Development Outlook Survey indicated that their firms would be more active with acquisitions in 2018. That was the most-bullish outlook since the end of the recent recession, coming in more than three times higher than the 18% of corporate buyers who expect their companies to step out of the market. (To see the full 451 Research report, click here.)

The company-specific outlook, which came from major acquirers across the tech landscape, is far more buoyant than their view of the broader M&A market, however. Looking ahead at the overall dealmaking environment for corporate buyers, only slightly more than four out of 10 respondents (43%) said it would be more favorable in 2018 than it was in 2017. On the other side, fully one-quarter (25%) predicted that general tech M&A conditions would deteriorate this year.

Although the broad-market outlook – with slightly more than four out of 10 respondents projecting an improved M&A environment in the coming year – ticked higher from last year’s survey, it is still lower than the two surveys before that, when tech acquisition activity did indeed hit multiyear highs. In those two previous 451 Research Tech Corporate Development Outlook Surveys, slightly more than half of the respondents forecast a favorable environment for their fellow strategic buyers. In both 2015 and 2016, spending on tech deals topped $500bn for the first time since the internet bubble burst, according to 451 Research’s M&A KnowledgeBase.

To see what else corporate acquirers told us about their financial rivals (PE firms), valuations and even what President Donald Trump is doing to the business of M&A, click here.
 

Every reason to shop, yet tech companies still empty-handed

Contact: Brenon Daly

As tech companies said goodbye to 2017, most of them did so with fond memories of the past year. Public companies nearly all saw steady gains on Wall Street, with more than a few hitting record highs. Record amounts of venture money flowed to startups, while more-established companies looked ahead to their already-stuffed treasuries getting even fuller when the benefits of the recently passed tax program kick in. And probably most importantly, customers are saying they are ready to spend on tech like they haven’t been since the recent recession.

In a November 2017 survey by 451 Research’s Voice of the Connected User Landscape, fully 50% of the 872 respondents said their company is giving a ‘green light’ for IT spending. That was the highest reading since 2007, and 13 basis points higher than the average survey response for the month of November for the previous five years. During that 2012-16 period, in fact, respondents unanimously said their companies were more likely to cut their IT spending than increase it.

All in all, the end of last year was a good time for publicly traded tech companies to do business. And they did, except in one crucial area: M&A. Tech acquirers announced one-quarter fewer deals in Q4 2017 compared with the final quarter of the previous three years, according to 451 Research’s M&A KnowledgeBase. Meanwhile, spending on tech and telco acquisitions in the October-December period slumped to the lowest quarterly level since Q2 2013.

Historically, there has been a relatively tight correlation between overall IT budgets, company valuations and M&A activity. To some degree, activity in all three of those markets is determined by a single shared characteristic (confidence), so it follows that there would be some interdependence in the trio. And yet, as we step from 2017 to 2018, that connection appears to be breaking down. Tech companies are enjoying record levels of confidence from customers and investors, yet are rather timid when it comes to shopping.

Mainstays missing in the tech M&A market

Contact: Brenon Daly

A number of the mainstay acquirers that had helped boost the tech M&A market to recent record levels stepped out of the market in 2017, clipping spending on deals by more than one-third compared with 2016 and 2015. The value of tech and telco acquisitions around the globe in the just-completed year slumped to $325bn, after topping a half-trillion dollars in each of the two previous years, according to 451 Research’s M&A KnowledgeBase. Last year’s M&A spending ranks as the lowest in four years.

The primary reason for the drop in 2017 is that tech giants – the companies that had set the tone in the overall M&A market over the past decade – didn’t shop like they once did. For instance, Oracle and SAP have, collectively, announced 16 acquisitions valued at more than $1bn since 2010, according to our M&A KnowledgeBase. However, only one of those deals printed last year. (More broadly, Oracle took an uncharacteristically long eight-month hiatus from deal-making in 2017. The prolonged absence of corporate acquirers such as Oracle was one of the primary contributors to last year’s overall M&A volume slumping to a four-year low, according to our count.)

Also weighing a bit on 2017’s totals is that free-spending Chinese buyers, who had turned tech into a favorite shopping ground, all but disappeared from the top end of the market last year. Our M&A KnowledgeBase lists just one $1bn-plus acquisition by a China-based buyer in 2017, down from nine transactions in 2016 and seven in 2015. Currency restrictions imposed by China’s authorities in early 2017 drastically reduced the ability of Chinese companies to put money to work outside their country. Also, the simmering trade fight and sparring over currency policy between Beijing and Washington DC slowed M&A between the world’s two largest economies.

On the other hand, last year saw the full emergence of a new, powerful – and largely underappreciated – force in the tech M&A market: private equity (PE). As corporate acquirers retreated, financial acquirers accelerated. PE firms announced a record 876 transactions last year, more than twice the number they did just a half-decade ago, according to 451 Research’s M&A KnowledgeBase. Deal volume, which has increased for five consecutive years, jumped nearly 25% in 2017 from 2016, even as the number of overall tech acquisitions posted a mid-teens decline year on year.

November tech M&A slumps to pre-boom levels

Contact: Brenon Daly

Dealmaking in 2017 is going out with a whimper. Acquirers in November spent just $15.7bn on tech transactions across the globe, the lowest monthly total in three years, according to 451 Research’s M&A KnowledgeBase. The sluggish November activity comes after a similarly anemic October, with both months coming in only about half of the average monthly spending for the first nine months of 2017. Also, the number of deals announced in the just-completed month slumped to its lowest level of the year.

Even as November featured a decidedly lackluster level of overall M&A activity, a few transactions stood out, including:
-After entirely sitting out the wave of semiconductor consolidation in recent years, Marvell Technology Group shelled out $6bn in cash and stock for Cavium. The deal stands as the largest tech transaction in November, topping the collective spending on the next four biggest acquisitions last month.
-The information security industry saw its largest take-private, as buyout firm Thoma Bravo paid $1.6bn for Barracuda Networks in a late-November deal. A single-digit grower that throws off $10-20m in free cash flow each quarter, Barracuda has long been considered a candidate to go private as it works through a transition from on-premises products to cloud-based offerings.
-Richly valued startup Dropbox stepped back into the M&A market in November for the first time since July 2015, purchasing online publisher Verst. From 2012-15, the unicorn (or more accurately ‘decacorn’) had inked 23 acquisitions, according to the M&A KnowledgeBase.

The recent tail-off in acquisition spending has left the value of announced tech transactions so far this year at just $302bn, according to the M&A KnowledgeBase. With one month of 2017 remaining, this year is all but certain to come in with the lowest annual M&A spending since 2013. This year is tracking to a 34% decline in deal value compared with 2016 and an even-sharper 45% drop from 2015.

Bull market bypasses tech IPOs

Contact: Brenon Daly

Although there’s still a month remaining in 2017, most startups thinking about an IPO – even those already on file ‘confidentially’ – have already turned the calendar to 2018. The would-be debutants want to have results from the seasonally strong Q4 to boast about during their roadshow with investors, as well as toss around a bigger ‘this year’ sales figure to hang their valuation on. There’s no compelling reason to rush out an offering right now.

That’s true even though the tech IPO market has been pretty active recently. By our count, a half-dozen enterprise-focused tech vendors have come public in just the past two months. (To be clear, that tally includes only tech providers that sell to businesses, and leaves out recent consumer tech companies such as Stich Fix and CarGurus.) The total of six enterprise tech IPOs since October is already higher than the full Q4 2016 total of four offerings.

While there has been an uptick in IPO activity, shares of the newly public companies haven’t necessarily been ticking higher, at least not dramatically so. There hasn’t been a breakout offering. Based on the first trades of their freshly printed shares, not one of the recent debutants has returned more than 20%. Half of the companies are trading lower now than when they debuted. Meanwhile, investors who aren’t interested in these new issues can’t seem to get enough of stocks that have been around a while, bidding the broad market indexes to record high after record high this year. The much-desired IPO ‘pop’ has gone a little flat here at the end of 2017, which might have some startups slowing their march to Wall Street in early 2018.

 

Tech M&A stumbles out of summer

Contact: Brenon Daly

This summer’s momentum in the tech M&A market petered out as autumn arrived. Spending in the just-completed month of October slumped to its second-lowest monthly total of the year. Across the globe, acquirers announced just $17bn worth of tech and telco purchases in October, equaling only slightly more than half the average monthly deal value in the nine previous months, according to 451 Research’s M&A KnowledgeBase.

October’s spending represents a sharp decline from September and, more broadly, the entire third quarter. (See our full Q3 report.) Spending on tech deals in September, which featured this year’s two largest acquisitions, came in more than three times higher than October. The September surge helped boost overall Q3 deal value to a quarterly level more in-line with the boom years of 2015 and 2016. (The two previous years stand out as banner years for tech M&A. At this point in the year, deal makers had spent 85% more in 2015 and 50% more in 2016 than they have so far in 2017.)

However, deal makers abruptly hit the brakes in October, particularly when shopping for big-ticket targets. Our M&A KnowledgeBase records just three transactions last month valued at $1bn or more, down from a monthly average of five 10-digit deals so far in 2017. Without a continuation of those billion-dollar deals, the start of Q4 is tracking much more closely to the first two quarters of this year, rather than the breakout Q3. Overall, with 10 months now in the books, 2017 is on pace for about $340bn in full-year M&A spending, which would represent the lowest annual total in four years.

VCs aren’t buying what VCs are selling

Contact: Brenon Daly

VCs aren’t buying what other VCs are selling, slamming shut a once-reliable exit door for startups. The recent shift in M&A has left the number of VC-to-VC acquisitions down about 40% so far this year compared with the previous three years, according to 451 Research’s M&A KnowledgeBase. The current weekly pace of two sales of VC-backed companies to other VC-backed companies would put this year’s total at about 105, representing the lowest full-year number of exits since the start of the decade.

There are several reasons for the decline in intra-industry deals, depending on the stature of the acquiring startup. In the rarified land of unicorns, there is a prevailing focus for VC portfolio companies on operational improvements, rather than inorganic expansion. Unlimited spending – whether it’s on KIND bars or Y Combinator graduates – has fallen out of fashion.

For instance, the M&A KnowledgeBase lists 24 acquisitions for Dropbox, which has raised more than $2bn in debt and equity. However, not one of those purchases has come in the past two years. It’s a bit different for Uber, which has its own ‘operational improvements’ to make. That besieged startup hasn’t done any deals in 2017, after doing two in each of the two previous years, according to the M&A KnowledgeBase.

Beneath that top tier of once-active, big-name startups is a fatter slice of VC-backed companies that have also cut their shopping, but for a different reason. In many cases, the startups simply don’t have the money for M&A because they haven’t been able to raise any new funding. This year is on pace to feature the fewest number of startups receiving venture investment since 2012, according to trade group National Venture Capital Association.

MongoDB maintains in its IPO

Contact: Brenon Daly

Despite a well-received IPO, MongoDB’s valuation basically flatlined from the private market to the public market. The open source NoSQL database provider priced shares at $24 each and jumped in mid-Thursday trading to about $30. The 25% pop on the Nasdaq basically brought MongoDB shares back to the price where the company sold them to crossover investors in late 2014.

MongoDB has slightly more than 50 million shares outstanding, on an undiluted basis. With investors paying about $30 for shares in the company’s public debut, that gives MongoDB a market cap of more than $1.5bn. It raised $192m in the public offering, on top of the $300m it raised as a private company.

That means Wall Street is valuing MongoDB, which will put up about $150m in the current fiscal year, at 10x current revenue. That’s a rather rich premium compared with the most-recent big-data IPO, Cloudera. The Hadoop pioneer, which went public six months ago, currently trades at about 6x current revenue. For more on MongoDB’s IPO, 451 Research subscribers can see our full report, including our sizing of the NoSQL database market, as well as an in-depth look at the evolution of the 10-year-old company’s technology and its competitors.

For more real-time information on tech M&A, follow us on Twitter @451TechMnA.

Startups stuck in a billion-dollar backlog

Contact: Brenon Daly

Startups are increasingly stuck. The well-worn path to riches – selling to an established tech giant – isn’t providing nearly as many exits as it once did. In fact, based on 451 Research calculations, 2017 will see roughly 100 fewer exits for VC-backed companies than any year over the past half-decade. This current crimp in startup deal flow, which is costing billions of dollars in VC distributions, could have implications well beyond Silicon Valley.

First, the numbers. So far this year, 451 Research’s M&A KnowledgeBase reports just 439 VC-backed companies have been acquired, putting full-year 2017 on pace for roughly 570 exits. That’s 16% fewer deals than the average number of VC exits realized from 2012-16, and the lowest number of prints since the recession year of 2009, when startups were mostly focused on survival rather than a sale.

The reason for the current slowdown in the prototypical startup-sells-to-brand-name-buyer transaction that has generated hundreds of billions of dollars in investment returns over the years is that the buyers aren’t buying. (We would note that’s only the case for the bellwether tech vendors, the so-called strategic acquirers. Rival financial buyers – both through direct investment and acquisitions made by their portfolio companies – have never purchased more VC-backed firms in history than they have in 2017, even as the overall number of venture exits declines. Private equity now accounts for 17% of all VC-backed exits, twice the percentage the buying group held at the start of the decade, according to the M&A KnowledgeBase.)

Parked in VC portfolios, startups can, of course, build their businesses, along with the accompanying value. What they can’t do as long as they are still owned by venture investors is realize that value, at least not tangibly or completely. That takes either a sale of the company outright or an IPO. (Wall Street hasn’t provided many exits at all for VC-backed companies since 2000, and isn’t ever likely to be a primary destination for startups.)

And although we’re talking about small companies, there’s already been a pretty big impact. Even if we take a conservative average exit price of $50m for startups, multiplying that across the 100 exits that won’t happen this year means a staggering $5bn won’t get distributed in 2017 that would have in previous years. Without capital once again flowing from corporate acquirers back to startups and VCs, the entire ecosystem runs the risk of stagnation.

Survey: Steady as she goes for tech M&A

Contact: Brenon Daly

Undeterred by the recent slowdown in M&A activity, tech acquirers have largely left their bullish forecast for dealmaking unchanged. For the third consecutive time, essentially half of the respondents to the semiannual M&A Leaders’ Survey from 451 Research and Morrison & Foerster indicated that they expected an acceleration in acquisition activity.

The 51% that forecast a pickup over the next year in M&A in our most-recent edition is more than twice the 19% that projected a decline. The results lined up very closely with the sentiment from both the year-ago survey as well as our previous survey in April.

More broadly, the outlook from the three recent surveys reflects an unusual bit of stability in what is an inherently lumpy business. A bit of history: Over the previous half-dozen years of the M&A Leaders’ Survey from 451 Research and Morrison & Foerster, swings of 10 or even 20 percentage points from one edition to the next haven’t been uncommon.

451 Research subscribers can click here for the full report on the views from 150 top dealmakers, including their forecasts on M&A valuations, their thoughts on where startups should be looking to exit, and how they see the pitched fight with cash-rich private equity buyers playing out.