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US companies spend heavily on big mergers in 2014

NEW YORK--So far, 2014 is looking like the year of the big deal. Flush with cash and high stock prices, companies are buying up the competition at levels not seen since the dotcom bubble. And with Washington providing more clarity on government spending plans, CEOs are more confident their expansion hopes will pan out — especially if the economy keeps growing.

Many of the acquisitions involve American businesses doing the buying or getting bought by overseas rivals. Global deals are up as well.

In the last month, Comcast has offered to buy Time Warner Cable for US$45 billion. Pharmaceutical giant Actavis is buying Forest Laboratories for US$25 billion. And Facebook shocked the technology world by offering US$19 billion for tiny WhatsApp.

Merger-and-acquisition executives say they have expected a pickup in deal activity for a couple of years, given the bull market and economic recovery. But what prevented the really big transactions was uncertainty about the federal budget, the debt ceiling and the fate of President Barack Obama's health care reform law, the Affordable Care Act.

With those issues resolved — at least for now — the way has opened up for bigger, more complex deals.

“The deals we have seen in the last couple of weeks are that tipping point that we've been waiting for,” said Mark Walsh, who heads up the M&A practice at Deloitte, one of the world's largest accounting and consulting firms. “There's so much pent-up demand to do a deal now.”

U.S. companies announced US$336.13 billion in deals in January and February, according to Dealogic. That's up 31 percent from US$256.21 billion during the same period last year. It's the largest amount spent during the first two months of the year since 2000. Companies worldwide have announced US$569 billion in deals so far this year, the highest level since before the financial crisis.

American companies announced 1,550 deals in the first two months of 2014, according to Dealogic. While that is down from the last two years, the average transaction size is more than double what it was a year ago.

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